With more than 1,200 empty units in the borough already, traders say that the development blight caused by lengthy delays by supermall operators has turned Croydon into ‘a retail graveyard’. MT WALLETTE reports
A shiny new Westfield shopping centre, promised to Croydon by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London and “Lord” Gavin Barwell when he was still the local Tory MP, will be “too little, too late” to save the town centre’s rapidly declining retail offer.
That’s according to a report this week in trade magazine Draper’s Record, which describes Croydon town centre as “a retail graveyard”.
The town centre has been suffering development blight since 2012, when Johnson, Barwell, Westfield and their “Croydon Partners” Hammerson announced their intention to redevelop the town centre.
Two sets of planning permissions since, hiking the cost of the scheme from £1billion to the latest estimate of £1.4billion, and work on a supermall that was supposed to have opened in time for Christmas 2017 has still yet to begin.
Indeed, for the past six months, Westfield and Hammerson say that they have been “reviewing” their options, faced with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, the plunging value of the pound and the troubled retail sector as a whole.
Draper’s managed to get the Croydon Partnership to go on the record about their seemingly ever-lasting review of their Croydon plans for the first time since demolition work that was planned for this autumn was postponed.
“With the changing retail market in the UK, and shifting consumer demands, we are continuing to review the Croydon development to ensure it meets future needs,” the Westfield-Hammerson joint venture said.
“The objective is to increase the leisure and dining offers, with a hotel and offices also being considered in addition to residential.” There was no provision for a hotel, nor significant office provision, in the first two planning applications submitted for the redevelopment.
“We remain committed to the town centre, and believe that Croydon has strong potential with flagship destinations outperforming over the long term. We will continue to work closely with all stakeholders and remain part of the regeneration of the town. We are long-term investors in the area and to date have invested over £300million in Croydon including development and community investments.”
That £300million figure is reckoned to be the amount Westfield and Hammerson have managed to spend, between them, predominantly on various architects’ drawings and planning applications, and on their Partnership’s PR operation over the past seven years while manage to build precisely… zilch.
As Drapers reports, somewhat chillingly for other traders trying to operate their businesses in Croydon’s blighted town centre, “The Croydon Partnership has still not revealed how long the review will take, or offered a new date for construction to begin.”
Drapers also cites a Freedom of Information request by restructuring advisory firm Duff and Phelps which has found there were 1,269 empty retail units in the borough as a whole as of November 2018. The chances are that that number of empty units – in what council leader Tony Newman and Town Hall chief exec like to call “the growth zone” – has since increased.
The magazine adds: “Independents said the vast number of empty units meant footfall had diminished and may not recover. ‘If the project is delayed again and not completed until 2023, Croydon will have deteriorated altogether’,” they quoted one store owner as saying.
“Croydon used to be so good, but now the high street is completely dead, and it looks like a poor, deprived area. It would be devastating if Westfield falls through because there are already vast numbers of empty retail units in the area and a distinct lack of footfall.”
Bakhtawar Budwal, the owner of family-run designer clothing independent Budwals, was quoted as saying, “We need work to start happening and for it to be completed as soon as possible so people can start coming back to Croydon. There are so many shops empty in the shopping centre and on the high street. Soon there will be no independent or big retailers left. The council and all these landlords should sit together and sort something out.”
Last month, when the council seized possession of the former Allders building, they managed to displace at least two dozen small businesses, leaving them and their 120-or-so staff nowhere to trade at all.
There is a widespread fear that smaller, independent traders based around the high street will be squeezed out of the shiny new Westfield mall, by higher rents and the big-hitting large chain operators.
Drapers quoted another independent store owner: “The Partnership said they’re going to include independent retailers in the plans, but no one has spoken to us about it.” That, remember, is after a mere seven years…
Drapers was given a statement from the council press office which blithely ignored the businesses which were ruined by their own dawn raid on the Allders building.
“We don’t want to lose our independent businesses,” a council spokesperson said.
“They make up a large part of Croydon’s economy, and we support them in a number of ways including offering discretionary rate relief and access to low-interest rate loans available to businesses that may not qualify for loans through banks. We also work with businesses to ensure they get a space suitable for them.”
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