Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on how the increasingly secretive Labour council appears to have something to hide over the future of the town centre’s long-delayed redevelopment
Croydon Council is trying to keep secret the contents of a letter sent to Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour-controlled council, regarding plans for the £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre.
So desperate has Newman’s council become to keep under wraps the full contents of a letter sent from developers Unibail-Rodamco Westfield that they have now taken to breaking the law to maintain their cover-up.
Newman received the letter from the developers at the end of March. It was in response to growing concerns about the latest delay to the work on demolishing and redeveloping the Whitgift Centre, a scheme which Westfield, together with Croydon Partners Hammerson, have been promising to get underway since 2012.
Earlier this year, however, Westfield and Hammerson announced that the scheme had been stalled once more, while they conduct a “review” of their proposals (another one), against the backdrop of the troubled retail sector and the impact of Brexit. No deadline for when the review might be concluded has ever been disclosed, and no new start date for the development announced.
On March 25, Newman tweeted a message, typically garbled, accompanied by some images of sections of a letter from the shopping mall developers.
Tantalisingly, Newman’s pictures provided some of the developers’ message.
But only piecemeal, and incomplete.
We quote from Newman’s gibberish tweet here, verbatim:
“Welcome letter re our next meeting from @urw_group stating Westfields clear commitment to & @yourcroydon as a ‘flagship scheme for the company’ in terms of timing letter recognises ‘Brexit Uncertainty’ & challenges re the UK ‘political outlook’.”
From what Newman allowed to be seen of the letter, it actually offers little more than the platitudes and lukewarm assurances that were issued in February, when the company announced their “review”.
There is a scrap of a sentence, seen in the selective images, which refers to business rates, which suggests that the private developers may be seeking further assistance from the public sector, perhaps with some undertakings over rate rebates.
But Newman and Croydon Council have never published the complete text of the Unibail-Rodamco Westfield letter. This has led to the growing suspicion that the full message, far from being optimistic encouragement, as portrayed by Newman, includes some less cheery news.
“The developers have kept the people of Croydon, local businesses and the council dancing to their own tune for seven years now, all on the promise of ‘jam tomorrow’,” one Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon. “All they have caused, in fact, is development blight right through the town centre.
“If this latest letter of apparent reassurance about their intentions is sincere and as promising as Tony Newman has tried to make out, why hasn’t he published it in full?”
A request for the full text of the letter was made to Croydon Council on March 30.
Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, Croydon Council was obliged by law to release the letter before the end of April.
Yet by today, and despite two reminders, Newman’s council has refused to release the Unibail-Rodamco Westfield letter.
“There’s plenty of precedent to show that, as a public authority, the council cannot claim commercial confidentiality in correspondence such as this,” the source said. “Indeed, it would be a very flimsy excuse indeed if the council tried to withhold the letter on that premise.
“This is a major scheme, affecting the lives and businesses of tens of thousands of people in this borough. There’s a clear public interest in publishing the letter.”
Withholding information from the people of Croydon also breaks one of Newman’s own manifesto promises made in 2014.
Then, when seeking residents’ votes in Town Hall elections against a backdrop of eight years of a Tory administration which had kept secret the £100million overspend on the council’s new offices, and repeat investigations into allegations of corrupt procurement practices by the then council deputy CEO, Newman boldly announced that he would “blow open the books” when Labour was elected.
That promise has never been kept.
Before those 2014 elections, Newman even made a manifesto promise of making Croydon “the most open and transparent” council in the borough’s history.
Keeping Unibail-Rodamco Westfield’s March letter top secret is neither open nor transparent.
What is utterly transparent, however, is the crisis on Britain’s high streets, undermining Westfield and Hammerson’s business plans for generating rents from retailers which would make a commercial success of any Croydon supermall.
According to figures published today by the British Retail Consortium, 1 in 10 shops in Britain’s town centres are empty.
The BRC’s national town centre vacancy rate has climbed to a four-year high of 10.2 per cent last month. The vacancy rate has risen in each of the last four quarters and is now higher than at any time since 2015.
This has prompted the BRC to speak in terms of “struggling high streets… trapped in a downward spiral”.
Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, said, “Empty shopfronts, particularly for larger stores, can deter shoppers from an area. This effect can be cyclical, with the long-term decline in footfall pushing up vacancy rates, particularly in poorer areas.”
Centrale, the Croydon shopping centre operated by Hammerson which was to form part of the £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre, has recently been hit by the administration or voluntary arrangements required by department stores Debenhams and House of Fraser, once more reducing the prospect of profitable rents on which their business depends.
As The Guardian reports today, “A growing number of retailers, struggling as sales shift online, are scaling back their physical stores as high rents, coupled with rising business rates and payroll costs, make them unprofitable. The situation is made worse by dwindling shopper numbers.”
And this, it could be added, creates a business environment in Croydon’s retail centre which makes any false optimism over the prospects for Hammersfield redevelopment put out from council leader Newman seem deeply irresponsible.
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