MT WALLETTE, our unbuilt shopping malls correspondent, reports on the deep hole that Croydon has got itself into over the aborted Westfield development
Croydon Council has allowed itself to be mugged by a couple of multi-national developers, and has handed over a vast swathe of the town centre to the Whitgift Foundation with few real guarantees of what development will take place there, or when.
That is the worrying reality that emerged from last night’s emergency debate in the Town Hall chamber – the debate about the collapse of the Westfield scheme that Croydon’s Labour-run council at first tried to block.
Now, though, according to Tony Newman and his cronies, they never wanted a shiny new £1.4billion mega shopping centre anyway.
“Croydon dodged a bullet,” was the agreed party line trotted out by Newman, his mate Paul Scott and at least one other sycophant about Westfield proposals that, until as recently as last month, they were among the most enthusiastic advocates for.
That Orwellian re-drafting of history, of course, has only come in the past fortnight, after Westfield removed Croydon from its “pipeline” of future developments, a year after they halted any scheduled demolition works on the pretext that they wanted to review the scheme.
“I don’t see Westfield, or anyone, starting any work on it for the next five years,” one Katharine Street source said this morning.
It was around 3.30 yesterday afternoon that the Croydon Partnership issued a statement about the future prospects for the town centre. The Croydon Partnership is the joint venture formed in 2012 by what was once plain old Westfield and Hammerson, for the purpose of redeveloping the Whitgift and Centrale shopping centres.
It amounts to the fullest public utterance from Westfield and Hammerson about their Croydon scheme for more than 12 months, and – oh so conveniently – it appeared just a couple of hours before Newman was due to be grilled over the paralysed project at the Town Hall.
The statement must have been provided as a sop to assist the beleaguered politician. Within minutes, Newman was retweeting the developers’ announcement, and last night he twice devoted large chunks of his allotted speaking time to read the Hammerson and Westfield script to the assembled elected councillors in the Town Hall (perhaps Newman thinks some of them can’t read?).
This is the same council leader who a week earlier had been summoned to City Hall for an urgent meeting with the developers. Going in, Newman demanded that their plans should be made public. Coming out, Newman was still none the wiser.
As, indeed, is anyone after the Westfield-Hammerson statement yesterday, which was exceptionally light on detail, except for one or two significant clues as to even more bad news for Croydon.
The statement says:
“The challenges in the retail industry are affecting developments across the UK. Despite this, the Croydon Partnership recognises the opportunity to create a vibrant, mixed-use development for Croydon.
“We are reviewing the development to ensure it meets the future needs of the community, including a viable mix of retail, dining, leisure and uses such as a hotel, offices and residential space.
“We are working closely with Croydon Council, the Greater London Authority and local stakeholders to develop the right masterplan. Croydon Council, the Greater London Authority and the Croydon Partnership held a productive meeting to discuss the time-intensive, future planning support needed for a large and complex scheme and the delivery of a more sustainable development, phased over time, which includes the refurbishment of some existing buildings. We will continue to consult with businesses and residents on their needs for the town centre which will also inform the review. The Croydon Partnership is still committed to ensuring a dynamic town centre and will work together with all stakeholders and the community to support its existing assets in Croydon.”
As Gavin Barwell, the former MP who brought Westfield into Croydon in the first place, noted this morning, this “represents a significant scaling back of ambition”.
And talk of a “phased” development, and the “refurbishment of some existing buildings” is also new, and represents an abandonment of the mega-mall model which Westfield has built in Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush.
Even when Westfield and Hammerson first tied the knot in Croydon eight years ago, the change in shopping habits had been known about for a decade, and the decline in high street retailing had already begun. But then, Tories and Labour alike in Croydon still wanted their own version of the supermall, bigger and shinier than all others.
Newman has been cheerleader-in-chief for such a scheme for six years, in which time has made it his task to castigate anyone who dared question the wisdom of such a retail-dependent project as “talking down our town”.
Last night, in the face of the inevitable demise of the mega-mall, Newman and Scott, finally, changed their tune.
Newman shrugged off any responsibility for the failure of the scheme he had until recently argued for so unquestioningly, saying that “the fake blame game is entirely vacuous”.
“We don’t run retail centres,” said the leader of a council which has run up £1.5billion of debt, including many millions spent in buying up a retail centre…
Newman revealed that, before last week’s summit at City Hall, he had previously met with Christophe Cuvillier, the chief executive of the French-owned Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, as recently as last November; Newman had clearly left that November meeting clueless as to URW’s intentions, as announced in their annual report last month, to dump their Croydon scheme.
The motion debated last night, proposed by the Town Hall’s opposition Conservative group, accused Newman and Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the council chief executive, of “incompetence in losing this opportunity to regenerate Croydon’s town centre”.
The mood of the meeting had, thus far, been most conciliatory. The annual budget had been debated – including that mountain of £1.5billion debt, the biggest of any local authority in the country, costing the council £40million per year in interest repayments – and Council Tax increases had all been voted for unanimously, with the support of the Tory councillors.
And the governance review recommendations had also been passed without any dissenting votes, as Tim Pollard’s Conservatives praised the cross-party nature of the work of the committee which had drafted the report.
Like the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre, the debate about the lack of redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre was much-delayed – not starting until after 9 o’clock. The opposition councillors in the main avoided the tit-for-tat “blame game” that Newman had foreseen, but they did highlight the need for much better, and more frequent, discussion and information on the state of the town centre.
As Jason Perry, leading the discussion for the Tories, pointed out, there had been a council cabinet meeting a week earlier, involving four Labour cabinet members with responsibilities that involved the development in some way, and there had not been one single mention of the Westfield blight on the borough or the company’s recent announcement.
Even Mario Creatura managed to make a point which appeared to attract assent from most of those present. “It has taken this emergency council meeting to hear from the Croydon Partnership, which is deeply concerning,” he said, calling for monthly updates from cabinet members and half-yearly scrutiny committee meeting devoted to the state of the town centre and the progress – or lack of it – by the developers.
“We must deliver the Westfield scheme as soon as possible,” he said.
Creatura’s leader, Tim Pollard, though, poured very chilly water on that prospect, estimating it could be six to 10 years before the scheme is delivered. Urging the council to intervene by coming up with some form of “meantime use” of buildings such as the old Allders – which, on behalf of Westfield, the council contrived to clear of its various traders, at no notice, last year – Pollard demanded that the council “keep the developers’ feet to the fire”.
The trouble is, it is very hard to do that when Croydon Tories – who with Barwell backed the project when it was first announced – and Croydon Labour have spent the past eight years as cheerleaders for the scheme.
And it is even more difficult to do when, as Scott confirmed in his speech last night, the council has carried out the painstakingly detailed, and very expensive, Compulsory Purchase Order process and already handed over the land to the Whitgift Foundation and the developers.
As might be expected, the council has never released any detail of what contractual conditions are in place that might be used to compel the developers to go ahead with the scheme. The chances are, there are none. So Croydon is left with a pig in a poke, and Hammerson and Westfield can take their time over what they do with the town centre, where they hold a 250-year lease from their landlords, the freeholders, the Whitgift Foundation.
This is not the first time that Croydon Council has blundered over a town centre CPO. Back in 2009, a £500million Park Place scheme from Minerva to redevelop St George’s Walk collapsed, seeing the council embroiled in a Lands Tribunal case with angry shop-owners whose businesses were blighted.
As one interested observer, Timothy Godfrey, until 2018 a member of Newman’s council cabinet, said yesterday, “No one can make the Croydon Partnership develop the scheme. Not the government nor the council, even with both giving substantial infrastructure incentives to do so.
“The key questions should revolve around the CPO and the removal of much competition from the availability of different landlords. It is not good having a single landlord across the whole of the retail district.”
In the Town Hall chamber last night, after half a dozen hand-picked councillors stood up and read (bad) speeches (badly), the matter was put to a “vote”, where the two groups of politicians tried to shout more loudly than the other. The deputy mayoress decided that her colleagues on the Labour benches had shouted the loudest, so the motion was lost.
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