Just how big a bribe, a “bung” if you prefer, of public cash is it going to take to get Westfield and their supermall partners to finally get to work on their Barwell-inspired, Tory-backed shopping centre scheme in Croydon Town Centre?
That’s the only remaining question, surely, after Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central, this week secured the agreement for a meeting over the parlous state of her constituency’s high street with the Conservative government’s business minister, Andrea Leadsom. Cuts in business rates are firmly on the agenda.
Referring to the long-promised temple to consumerism in typically public schoolgirl language as “fabulous”, Jones told the House of Commons, “Westfield is set to open a fabulous new shopping centre in Croydon, but the French owner of Westfield, Unibail-Rodamco, is worried about business rates, the state of retail and the impact of Brexit.
“Will the Secretary of State please meet representatives of Westfield and Unibail-Rodamco to talk about some of those concerns?”
From the despatch box, Leadsom agreed unhesitatingly.
Jones later sent a message on Twitter which underlines how devoid of any bargaining position the public authorities have become. There really is no Plan B.
“I’ll keep pushing hard to ensure our £1.4billion Croydon town centre redevelopment is delivered as soon as possible,” she wrote.
The redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and Centrale in Croydon has been promised by Westfield and their partners, Hammerson, since 2012, but to date, not a brick has been laid. It is nearly 12 months now since the two shopping centre giants announced a halt to any demolition plans for autumn 2019, and they have been “reviewing” their options ever since.
Brexit uncertainty and the parlous state of retail were given as reasons. Neither of which have been resolved, or improved since.
With the local council paralysed – by fear and a lack of imagination and courage – Westfield has effectively been allowed to hold the borough to ransom. In a game of poker where they have been dealt all the aces by the local authority, you can see only one side folding.
They have already received one major dispensation over their previous set of plans – Croydon Westfield Mk II – two years ago, when Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, abandoned his hard-and-fast 35 per cent affordable housing requirement, allowing the multi-billion-pound international developers to go forward with a scheme that included just 20 per cent of their 967 proposed flats as “affordable” housing. And that’s where “affordable” means rents of around £1,200 per month…
If, as the most optimistic of Westfield flag-wavers suggests, the developers do come back with a third version of plans for Croydon town centre sometime this year, the expectation is that it will include even less retail space, plenty of bars and restaurants, some additional office space, perhaps a hotel, and much more residential accommodation.
Supposing that Khan is re-elected as Mayor of London in May, having had his bluff called by Westfield once before how will he be able to hold the line even on 20 per cent affordable housing this time around if City Hall officials managed to swallow the developer’s viability arguments back in 2017?
Westfield has also abandoned their previous commitment to providing cash towards community infrastructure in the town centre – the ludicrous Dingwall tram loop was dropped, though only after Westfield withdrew their £15million contribution towards making it easier for car owners to drive into their car parks without being delayed by pesky public transport.
Now, it seems, the begging bowl is out again to make it cheaper for Westfield and Hammerson’s prospective tenants – Marks and Sparks, John Lewis and all the various struggling chain stores that Mike Ashley has managed to buy up. According to the retail industry, the panacea to its woes is an overdue reduction in business rates, most of which goes to the government’s coffers.
Their pleadings tend to revolve around how high street retailers are disadvantaged against the likes of online tax avoider Amazon. Though the failure to update the tax system is a keen example of how trading practices are decades ahead of our legislation (not least, it can be said, because so much legislative time and effort has been wasted on the Brexit fiasco).
The retail sector is clamouring for business rates relief. A special dispensation in a Croydon business district might be just the thing Westfield and Hammerson demand to lure in retailers to take space their shopping mall, without them needing to slash their own rents.
According to one respected commentator writing for Property Week today, however, “Additional business rate relief for shops will do as much good as giving alms to a beggar.”
Peter Bill is a former property editor and journalist for the Evening Boris. In a withering critique, he sees through the retail sector’s special pleadings, and without trying, he sort of foresees where Westfield Croydon might be heading. If only MP Jones had spoken to him first…
“Over 600,000 poor beggars already get relief in some form or another,” Bill wrote. “Rateable values are referenced to rents, so rates will fall, eventually.” Effectively, if Westfield and Hammerson reduced their rents, their tenants would also pay less in business rates.
“As a stopgap, every poor beggar in retail is having their hopes raised by Whitehall whispers. Pssst… the high street is going to be ‘saved’, ‘now Brexit has been sorted’. Showering pennies from government heaven may be marginally better than pouring cash directly down town drains. But the idea that shoppers will surge back, lured by subsidised granite setts, cast-iron benches and flower baskets is wishful thinking.
“Think. It’s Saturday morning. You need a £3 widget. That place in town stocks widgets, but have they the one you want? Sod it, search Amazon. The next day, a minimum-wage messenger shoves the widget through your letter box… to reference Trollope’s 1875 satire on capitalism, that’s The Way We Live Now.
“The high street has been partially saved; count the number of eateries compared with 20 years ago. The next wave of demand is easy to see: residential… The high street’s saviour is capitalism, not interventionism, by having the price of space fall low enough for traders to make a profit.
“Sorry, landlords. Charity should stay at home.”
Do you think Sarah Jones and the other Westfield cheerleaders, like the witless council leader Tony Newman, will get the message? Or are there other reasons that they are seeking public subsidy of these large private businesses?
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