Croydon Council tried to cover-up a letter from the CEO of Westfield to the council leader that warned of “the deep structural changes currently facing retailers… illustrated by the growing number of bankruptcies, CVAs and retailers announcing declining financial results”.
Today, Inside Croydon publishes the letter in full for the first time
After a nine-month battle, Croydon has been forced to release a letter from Westfield to the council leader, Tony Newman, which delivers a significantly different view of the prospects for the £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre taking place than Newman’s numpties at the Town Hall would like you to believe.
The letter, dated March 20 and signed off by Christophe Cuvillier, the group chief executive of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, is in response to an appeal from Newman for some reassurance after the property developers announced in February that the entire scheme was under “review”. Demolition of the Whitgift Centre was supposed to have begun in 2019.
Newman himself published part of the letter when he received it – tweeting claims that it showed the developers’ “clear commitment”, while repeating one of the reasons given by Westfield and their partners, Hammerson, when announcing their “review”: Brexit uncertainty.
Newman’s tweet omitted to mention the dire state of the retail sector. Cuvillier’s letter, now published for the first time by Inside Croydon, does not.
Not unreasonably, given the massive amounts of public money at stake and the impact of development blight on Croydon town centre since Westfield and Hammerson announced their joint venture in 2011, one resident sent a Freedom of Information request to the council asking for sight of the whole Westfield letter – and not just the bits that Newman thought he could pass off as good news in one of his poorly drafted virtue-signalling tweets.
It was June before the council provided a substantive reply to the FoI request submitted more than two months previously. This did not provide the information requested, but instead announced that for some unexplained reason Town Hall lawyers would treat the information request under Environmental Information Regulations.
It was clear that the council was stalling. It even delayed a response for an internal review by longer that is allowed by law. The council tried to claim this was “due to the need for additional time to discuss public interest test considerations with the relevant departments”.
The matter was referred to the Information Commissioner, and after another six months, once the government official had stepped in, the council was finally forced into releasing the letter in full this week.
The letter from Westfield is far from the overwhelming vote of confidence in Newman and his council that the Labour leader tried to hoodwink the public into believing.
It is noteworthy, despite the claims made by the council, that the letter was in some way “commercially confidential”, Cuvillier himself at no point in the document makes any request that his comments should be withheld from the public.
Cuvillier states that “Croydon is a flagship scheme for the company”. But then, Westfield undoubtedly said much the same about their Bradford scheme, before leaving a vast hole in the town centre for a decade, undeveloped.
In his letter, Cuvilllier re-states some of the already well-known matters of public record about the Croydon scheme – John Lewis, Marks and Sparks, the council’s work on the vast CPO (which is being paid for out of Croydon’s Council Tax).
But it is easy to see quite why Newman tried for months to keep the full text of Cuvillier’s letter out of the public domain. For Cuvillier states, quite baldly: “There remain, however, significant challenges as regards the UK economy and the political outlook in the near future.
“This is compounded by the deep structural changes currently facing retailers, as well as the increasing impact of business rates on the UK high street and shopping centre retail property. It is illustrated by the growing number of bankruptcies, CVAs and retailers announcing declining financial results, in addition to Continental European retailers suspending plans to expand into the UK because of uncertainty linked to Brexit.
“Given this backdrop, it is our responsibility to review the scheme to ensure it responds to changing retailer requirements and is ready for the future. We recognise that Croydon has very strong potential with flagship destinations outperforming over the long term, and deserves the best configuration going forward. The team remains hard at work to bring the development forward.”
Cuvillier offered to be in touch for further meetings, and indeed, Newman and council officials met with Westfield in November – potentially breaking purdah before the Fairfield by-election, too.
But, 10 months after the “review” was announced, there’s been no new start date for development work to begin. There has been some suggestion that Westfield might yet submit a revised planning application – their third – which will further reduce the retail element of the scheme, bringing in more residential, office and hotel space for the site. Yet with each passing week, there’s further news of “the growing number of bankruptcies, CVAs and retailers announcing declining financial results”.
Trading figures for this latest Christmas period seem unlikely to reverse those trends.
With the developers themselves painting such a gloomy outlook for the scheme, it appears that Newman nonetheless used this letter to try to mislead the Croydon public over the prospects for the Westfield redevelopment. The council then repeatedly broke the law to delay and withhold the letter’s publication.
In the end, though, even Newman and Croydon Council are accountable to the law, and they were forced to back down from their efforts to cover-up the letter.
And to think that Newman once stood on a manifesto pledge to preside over the most transparent and open council in Croydon’s history.
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