Wait-field: now Labour council leader Newman calls it a ‘mess’

The people of Bradford, and even some of their politicians, woke up to the erosive nature of Westfield’s development plans – unlike most in Croydon

Our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE, on the rancour and recriminations between the borough’s third-rate politicians, desperately trying to pass the buck over the stalled £1.4bn supermall scheme, as City Hall is forced to step in to try to salvage something

Six years after taking charge of Croydon Town Hall, and after countless soundbytes about what a transformational and positive impact the Westfield shopping mall would have on Croydon town centre, council leader Tony Newman has now decided to describe their scheme as a “mess”.

Katharine Street colleagues have long known that Newman’s notoriously short fuse means that he really ought never be left in charge of a keyboard on his own, for fear of the damage he might inflict on himself as well as others.

But there was no holding him back this week, as the full realisation of the dire state that Westfield have left Croydon in finally sank in.

The long-promised scheme has been removed from the “pipeline” of developments planned by French-based parent company Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield.

Inside Croydon reported last Thursday that Croydon had been dumped by URW: “It has removed €3.2billion of projects that require major redefinition, are significantly postponed due to market or administrative circumstances, or no longer meet the group’s return requirements’.”

In other words, as a leading property analyst put it, the Croydon project was now a “£1.5billion dead duckling”.

Since 2012, when it was first announced, the borough’s elected representatives, from both sides of Croydon’s political duopoly, opted to be fully paid-up members of the Westfield Glee Club, always ready to sing its praises. No hint of criticism of the project was ever to be tolerated as far as the Croydon Establishment was concerned.

Tony Newman: has been less than forthcoming over discussions with URW

This despite the project being backed by local Tory MP Gavin Barwell and the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Croydon’s Labour group opted for uncritical support for the project. With councillors and relatives among those having served on its board, it is clear that Labour’s links with the all-powerful landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, also run deep.

Despite words of caution from those within the development industry and the lessons of Bradford, where Westfield became better known as “Wastefield” after they left a massive hole in the town centre for a decade – something which Inside Croydon flagged up for the first time in July 2012 – the love-in with the Croydon scheme continued unrestrained after Labour won control of the Town Hall in 2014.

With demolition work never having been started on the ageing and decaying Whitgift Centre, Croydon may be fortunate in not having such a visible sign of Westfield’s contemptuous neglect of one of their sites as Bradford had to endure.

Instead, Croydon’s dalliance with Westfield  has left a yawning chasm in the credibility of Croydon’s politicians.

Only this week, with some pretty desperate post-hoc rationalisation of events, have some councillors tried to re-position themselves in respect of the scheme. Sean Fitzsimons, the Addiscombe Labour councillor who chairs the scrutiny committee, took to describing the Westfield proposition, with its 5,000 promised jobs, hundreds of retail outlets, cafes, restaurants and nearly 1,000 flats, as a “white elephant”.

The Westfield dream held up as a panacea for all the borough’s ills

Just weeks earlier, it was still being held up as the panacea for all the borough’s ills.

Newman was stirred into a fury (it’s easily done) through some gentle criticism from Conservative councillors who accused the Labour council of “dithering”. Newman has only been in charge of the borough for six years, after all…

Newman, of course, spent most of last year desperately trying to block the release of a letter from URW which may have explained the company’s position. When he received the letter, Newman claimed absolute confidence that the project would still go ahead. Yet he refused to allow the Council Tax-payers to see the letter, from Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s chief executive, Christophe Cuvillier, and make up their minds for themselves.

Eventually, under threat of sanctions from the Information Commissioner, Newman’s council caved in and Inside Croydon was able to publish the letter.

In the letter, dated March 20, 2019, Cuvillier made the position crystal clear, referencing “significant challenges as regards the UK economy and the political outlook in the near future”.

URW’s Christophe Cuvillier: 10 months after assuring Newman there was a future for the Croydon development, he pulled it from his company’s ‘pipeline’

Cuvillier’s letter to Newman stated: “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.”

Newman chose to keep this letter secret from the people he is supposed to represent for nine months.

But last week, he decided to fire off a series of tweets: “Westfield have stated Brexit and retail uncertainty are the causes of their ‘review’ of the scheme that emerged under your previous Tory council…” he wrote, seemingly desperate to pass the buck, now.

“Like everything else we have had to do, we will sort out the mess you left us.” As noted, post-hoc rationalisation.

“We will continue to drive inward investment…”, presumably as opposed to “outward investment”? “… for our town and ensure that despite Brexit uncertainty we continue to build a sustainable lesuire [sic] and retail offer all can be proud of.”

It was on February 14 last year that Westfield announced their review, cancelling plans to begin the already long-delayed demolition work in autumn 2019.

Only now is Newman talking of having meetings with URW and demanding to see the outcome of their review.

Jules Pipe: stepping in to sort out Westfield

Except the matter appears to have been taken out of Newman’s hands – the next meeting with URW will be held at City Hall, called by Jules Pipe, the former directly elected mayor of Hackney, now Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor responsible for regeneration.

“I am going into that meeting in a very positive mindset,” Newman blustered to a BBC reporter this week. “It would be extremely disappointing if we didn’t see the plans put forward.” No shit, Sherlock.

Newman still claims that he and his council’s £220,000 per year chief executive, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, have some sort of Plan B. They just won’t say what it is. “I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if we didn’t have a Plan B,” said a man who has struggled to do his job properly since May 2014.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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6 Responses to Wait-field: now Labour council leader Newman calls it a ‘mess’

  1. derekthrower says:

    Newman has run his course. He has nowhere left to go. When you leave Tony please remember to take Jo “We’re not Stupid” Negrini with you, along with the “Bald Ego” and “Oblivious Alison”. We will let somebody who can be trusted to manage turning off the light.

  2. David Wickens says:

    Could his and Negrini’s Plan B be the same as David Cameron’s ie resign. Let’s face it most realists knew that the scheme was a dead duck many years ago and they offered that advice for free.

  3. sebastiantillinger7694 says:

    If Newman is saying the thing is a mess, where’s his resignation letter?

    Time to get rid of Newman and Negrini – has alliteration ever been this useless?

  4. A pity that the council elections are two years away. I hope that the voters have long memories.

  5. So many young people have invested in central Croydon (including my son and his partner) with a big part of their decision based on the promises of the redevelopment of the high street and the Whitgift Centre. What compensation will they get for these unkept promises? The Council has to take responsibility for not securing the Westfield deal. The Council should have insisted on a substantial multi-million-pound deposit to ensure there was no easy way for Westfield or their new owners to back out. If there is a “plan b” then this needs to be made public as soon as possible. The high street has long been in decline and it is currently going from bad to worse. It is time to come clean and be totally transparent, what is the plan and when will it be actioned? If there really is a plan there are over three hundred and sixty thousand people who would like to know what it is. Come on now don’t be shy.

  6. Well, it’s nice to be proved right after all these years!

    In January 2014 I was chairman of the Addiscombe branch of Croydon Conservatives but I was not selected as a candidate for my own ward in that year’s elections because I had the misfortune to fall under the displeasure of Gavin (now Lord) Barwell, then the local MP.

    You see, I tried to pour a little cold water over his campaign for the Westfield centre. I didn’t even condemn the idea, I just advocated not actively campaigning for it. After all, it’s private business not a public sector project.

    Working for Royal Mail, I could see even six years ago that people were shopping more and more online. Since then the number of parcels we handle has grown inexorably. I came to the conclusion that shopping centres were soon going to become a non-viable business model.

    Now I could just as easily have been wrong, but within my local party, differing opinions were not allowed, only people who obeyed orders were allowed to be candidates for my marginal but possibly winnable ward.

    After a completely bland selection interview process, Barwell managed to convince two members of my committee to turn against me and vote against their own chairman. Two other members later confirmed to me that they had stayed loyal, so either Barwell or the dimwit who was chairman of the Conservative federation at the time would have had the casting vote.

    To add insult to injury, I wasn’t even told, only that the result was delayed. But when I turned up for canvassing a couple of days later, I came across people shaking hands and congratulating the successful candidates – a dull as ditchwater chairman of a local residents’ association and two complete political greenhorns.

    They lost the election, partly due to the rise of UKIP to which I later defected, and control passed to the Labour party and the current mess that they are making, where the only thing that is growing in Croydon are the number of beggars on the streets.

    Strangely, although I still live in Addiscombe, I have never seen any of those candidates since the election night in 2014. Maybe they all moved away.

    The same goes for the two people who turned against me, who I’ve only seen once or twice.

    I turned my attention to helping, in a very small way, deliver Brexit. Now that’s done, I think that I will start campaigning for reform of the House of Lords.

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