Croydon Council was being taken to court this afternoon by lawyers acting for the lease-holder of Croydon Outlet Village – based in the building better remembered as Allders – in what has become an increasingly acrimonious dispute over the ownership and management of the site.
Bailiffs acting on behalf of the council moved in before dawn yesterday to change the locks and take possession of the building, which a council spokesperson said was being done to allow for survey work to be conducted, as part of the Compulsory Purchase Order which Croydon has conducted ahead of the long-promised Westfield redevelopment.
But between 60 and 100 employees, who work across 40 businesses and concessions in the old department store building, have been locked out of their premises for two working days now, unable to access their stock, their cash in their safes and any personal effects.
Whether Optima Media International, the company which operated the Croydon Outlet Village, or the council win out in their court tussle, it seems unlikely that the building will be open for business again before Friday, causing a potential loss of business for the traders of more than £100,000.
One business, a tailor’s shop, has a set of suits ordered by the groom who has a wedding this weekend. Council officials have so far denied the tailor access to their store area, and the customer and his family and friends to the wedding suits on which they have spent thousands of pounds.
Other staff say that they have not been allowed to remove their personal possessions from the building. “My laptop’s in there, but they won’t allow me to bring it out unless I have the receipt and can prove it is mine – but who keeps a receipt for a piece of equipment that they’ve had for five years?” the shop worker said.
“I’m in shock,” another shop worker told Inside Croydon today. “On Monday, I had a job, now, I have just don’t know what the situation is.”
The council and Optima have been in dispute over the handling of the CPO for almost a year.
Adolfo de Alvarado, a director of Optima, maintains that his company signed a five-year lease in July 2018 and that the council has failed to deliver adequate notice as required by law when exercising the CPO.
The company came close to suing Croydon Council in April, but instead entered into lengthy talks over the future of the building and the handling of the CPO.
Those talks were still continuing as recently as a fortnight ago, and were described by a company employee as “amicable”.
“Then this happens,” they said. “No notice, no reasons given.
“There’s a real risk that they could put people out of business, people out of work.”
Representatives of the company claim that when the council’s bailiffs arrived at around 4am on Tuesday, they came without any valid court warrant or eviction order, just a council warrant which had been drawn up in the Town Hall’s own legal department.
“It was a complete surprise,” they said.
The move also came as a surprise to most of the council’s elected councillors, who were given no advance notice of the move by Town Hall officials or the council’s leadership.
A notice went up in the store windows this afternoon, though notably not in the name of the council, but as if from Croydon Partnership, the company established in 2012 by Westfield and Hammerson to deliver the £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre, including the old Allders building.
Under the heading “Temporary Store Closure”, and without using anything so grand as formal headed notepaper, or providing a contact address, email or phone number, the letter claimed that there had been “a change of management control of the former Allders building as part of the CPO process led by Croydon Council and The Croydon Partnership”.
It went on: “As this store has changed ownership, it has been temporarily closed to allow surveys to be undertaken”.
The letter provided no information was offered about the re-opening of the building.
Both Hammerson and Westfield earlier this year announced that they had placed their plans for Croydon town centre on hold, while they undertook a “review” of their scheme in light of the continuing and worsening struggles of the retail sector, and uncertainties caused by Brexit.
Neither company, nor the Croydon Partnership, has given any indication how long their “review” might last.
The centre was originally supposed to open before Christmas 2017. Plans for demolition work to begin this autumn have been long abandoned.
Tony Newman, the leader of Croydon’s Labour-run council, in March claimed to have received a letter from Unibail Rodamco Westfield, the now French-based shopping mall developers, which offered all sorts of reassurances about their intentions to pursue the development. But although Newman published selective parts of his letter on social media, he has refused to release its full contents to the residents and business owners of Croydon.
The council claims it stepped in with Croydon Village Outlet because an “amicable solution” could not be reached with the lease-holders. Clearly, Optima Media will have been seeking the best possible financial deal in respect of the outstanding term on their lease. A source close to Optima claims that until last month, Croydon Council was still discussing terms about buying the business.
In a statement issued yesterday, the council said, “Croydon Council has this morning taken possession of the Allders building, acquired through a compulsory purchase order to enable the Whitgift Centre retail redevelopment.
“The store and arcade is temporarily closed while statutory building surveys are undertaken and we are in continuous contact with all affected traders as we work to reopen the site.
“Great efforts to reach an amicable solution were explored and exhausted prior to the council seeking forcible possession and it is unfortunate an agreement could not be reached with the previous occupier.”
But traders and shop workers who have been in contact with Inside Croydon claim that they have been kept in the dark completely by the council over the closure.
“Nobody knows what the hell is going on,” said one.
“You don’t need to shut down the building to carry out the surveys as they claim,” another concessionaire said.
Another trader described the council as having “used brash tactics”.
They said, “This isn’t how you build business and community. They have caused huge disruption when we are already in a very tough retail environment.”
And another shop manager, left to count the cost of at least two days’ lost trading and without access to his petty cash, locked in the building, or his PDQ card charging equipment, said, “This shows that the council doesn’t give a shit about small businesses like mine.
“I don’t know why I waste my time with Croydon.”
- Under The Flyover – The Inside Croydon Podcast: Episode 1, Mark Butcher on music, racism and Ashes cricket. Listen here
- Become an Inside Croydon supporter today. For £5 per month enjoy access to exclusive content and money-saving special offers, while helping to support the borough’s only independent news outlet. Click here for more details
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and BBC London News
- Inside Croydon named Journalist of the Year at 2018 Anna Kennedy Online Autism Heroes Awards
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: For two consecutive years, 2017 and 2018, Inside Croydon has been the source for two award-winning nominations in Private Eye magazine’s annual celebration of civic cock-ups
- In 2018, Inside Croydon had 1.6million pages viewed by more than half a million unique visitors
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or what to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org