KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter, on an attempt to block any discussion of the crisis for the town centre at next week’s full council meeting
Tony Newman came back from his meeting with Westfield at City Hall yesterday empty-handed and none the wiser about the developers’ plans for redeveloping Croydon. With the Westfield-Hammerson £1.4billion scheme increasingly looking like a dead duck, Newman may now be forced to reveal to the Croydon public exactly what his and the council’s “Plan B” is for the blighted town centre, if any such plan actually exists.
Confronted by the crisis of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield pulling Croydon from its “pipeline” of pending developments, Newman, the leader of Croydon Council, last week puffed out his chest to boast that he would be demanding to see Westfield’s revised plans for Croydon.
“I will be strongly encouraging them at the earliest possibility to share their plans publicly,” Newman grandstanded.
“I am going into that meeting in a very positive mindset. It would be extremely disappointing if we didn’t see the plans put forward.”
Presumably, then, today Newman is extremely disappointed.
The best he could offer after what he described as a “productive” meeting was… Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
Hammerson and Westfield, Newman tweeted yesterday, were “left in no doubt local people are keen to hear about their plans”. But they still weren’t producing any plans, nor any timetable for when they might start work on a development which, originally, was supposed to have been completed in 2017.
In many respects, the collapse of the Westfield-Hammerson scheme, eight long years after it was first announced, has seen the matter taken out of Newman’s and Croydon’s hands. It is significant that yesterday’s meeting was held at City Hall, having been called by Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for development, Jules Pipe.
Pipe has made no comment on the outcome of the meeting, “productive” or otherwise. Which suggests that there’s not much to offer beyond the statements already issued in the past fortnight in gloom-laden reports filed to the stock markets by Westfield and their Croydon “partners”, Hammerson.
In the meantime, there will be what passes for a “debate” in Town Hall chamber on Monday over the crisis in Croydon town centre – but only after senior council officials tried to block the borough’s elected representatives from discussing the matter in public.
The debate has been called by Croydon’s opposition Conservatives, who wanted to know what the council’s “Plan B” might be, and how they intend to address eight years’ worth of development blight in the town centre.
According to Tim Pollard, the leader of Croydon’s Tories, the request for the debate was originally blocked. “It was refused on external legal advice because Newman’s numpties might accidentally say something which contravenes the council’s duty of confidentiality to the developers.
“That, of course, could logically be extended to cover any issue where there is a contract involved, as there is always the risk of breaching commercial confidentiality any time a service is discussed which is not directly provided by the council.
“So maybe we should have no debates and no questions ‘just in case’.
“Essentially the lawyers were saying that Newman and his chums aren’t capable of delivering three speeches to a script without accidentally ballsing it up! Come to think of it, they’re probably right…”
Pollard chuntered on about on his local party’s website, adopting one of Newman’s favourite terms when he was in opposition: “an affront to democracy”.
At some point yesterday afternoon, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the borough’s senior legal adviser, had a change of mind and the emergency debate was added to the agenda for Monday’s full council meeting. This occurred after the Tories had protested to Harris-Baker, and in an amended motion removed the reference to “Plan B”.
There is a suggestion that Newman might have intervened with the council’s senior officials himself, realising how politically damaging blocking such a debate would appear.
In any case, given that Newman returned from City Hall with nothing much to show for his meeting yesterday, it is hard to see what a brief debate, with a handful of speakers each limited to just three minutes, is likely to reveal.
Which makes the council’s attempts to block the debate in the first place look even more clumsy. “Sometimes, how this administration makes decisions is just completely random,” Pollard said.
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