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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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