Mothercare is the latest large store to quit the Whitgift Centre, as the continuing uncertainty over the shopping mall’s future is making business increasingly tough for the few traders forced to remain.
The large mother and baby store closed its doors in the Whitgift for the final time on March 31, the management evidently giving up on the slowly declining trade and poor state of the centre.
What’s left of the mall’s independent retailers and coffee shops find themselves stuck between a rock and a CPO hard place, forced to continue paying rents and high business rates despite the reducing number of customers visiting the Whitgift. If they leave now and cut their losses, traders risk losing out on the cash pay-outs promised by Croydon Council when they began the Compulsory Purchase Order process on behalf of the developers.
Westfield and Hammerson, the two shopping centre operators who together as Croydon Partners are supposed to be conducting a £1.4billion redevelopment of the Whitgift and Centrale malls, have had planning permission in one form or another to pursue their project for more than five years, since February 2014. The latest scheme provided for more than 300 shops, bars and cafés, a multiplex cinema (another one), a 3,000-space car park and nearly 1,000 flats on the site.
But both multi-national firms have recently announced that, in light of the desperate state of retailing on the high street, they are to “review” the scheme, with demolition of the 1960s-build Whitgift Centre planned for this autumn now postponed indefinitely.
In what appears to be a final scene in an unfolding Beckett-like tragi-comedy entitled Waiting For Westfield, Croydon Council is scrabbling around trying to cobble together something, anything, to deliver up to the commercial developers some sort of excuse not to pull the plug once and for all.
Overtures have been made by the council to the Home Office to relocate in commercial offices which were not included in the latest iteration of the developers’ plans, while the council’s £200,000 per year chief exec, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, spent a week in the south of France to make the announcement that the lowly ranked South Bank Poly has been invited to set up a campus in the town centre, too.
None of which, of course, will provide any immediate relief to the traders still based in the Whitgift Centre, and who have been enduring development blight on their businesses since Boris Johnson, when Mayor of London, together with the then Tory MP, Gavin Barwell, imposed Westfield on Croydon in 2012.
A report in the latest edition of the South London Press says, “Those suffering are the permanent traders in the shopping centre who continue to pay business rates despite working in a derelict building”.
The paper quotes sales assistant, Bini Ali, as saying, “Every year there are less and less customers. This Christmas was really bad.”
Independent traders such Rico Caleap, of Classic Café, are caught in a dilemma which they say has been caused by the council. “It is not fair… We can’t sell the business, we can’t go, we can’t stay. It’s horrible.
“60 or 70 per cent are closed down, it looks like a ghost town.”
Another trader, Denise Delicata, who has run a picture framing business in the Whitgift Centre for 18 years, told the SLP: “It’s blighted, there’s nobody coming in here at all.
“We’re just lucky we’ve got regular customers that are keeping us afloat.
“If anybody new does come here they are absolutely disgusted and they’re never coming back.”
Other traders have confirmed that they dare not move their business now, because they will not qualify for compensation under the council-run CPO scheme. “If we go because we decide to go then we don’t get a penny,” one said. “Some of us are just holding on.”
In a CPO process that was begun, at the developers’ request, in 2015, increasingly the question many of the independent traders caught in the middle are asking themselves is: how much longer can they hold on for?
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