Labour councillors signal major Town Hall U-turn over Westfield

Croydon Council is preparing to complete a full 180-degree U-turn over their position on Westfield and the long-promised and undelivered £1.4billion temple to consumerism in the town centre.

Never happening: Westfield’s ‘outdated proposals of the last few years’, according to Labour’s Sean Fitzsimons

“It makes sense for radical overhaul of the proposals for Croydon,” was the view expressed by Sean Fitzsimons, the chair of the Town Hall’s scrutiny committee.

Yet even as recently as the end of last month, Fitzsimons and his paymaster, Tony Newman, were parroting the (barely credible) party line that, after more than eight years of delivering nothing, Westfield somehow remains “committed” to Croydon – and this despite the town centre project being completely erased from the developers’ pipeline of developments in February.

It was reported yesterday that Westfield’s existing shopping centre businesses are struggling, the coronavirus lockdown only exacerbating the downturn in high street retailing that has been going on for more than a decade. As a partial response, Westfield plans to convert unused shop units at its Shepherd’s Bush centre into offices, a leisure centre and housing.  

In Croydon, Westfield, and their partners Hammerson, have so far had two large-scale planning applications waved through by the supine council, as well as approval from the Mayor of London and a Compulsory Purchase Order on the high street area that includes the old Allders store and stretches from George Street to West Croydon.

New critic: after six years, scrutiny chair Sean Fitzsimons is no longer a fan of Westfield’s proposals

But not a brick has been laid on a scheme first presented in 2012and which was originally meant to be completed by 2017.

In February 2019, Westfield – by now subsumed into Paris-based Unibail Rodamco Westfield – announced an indefinite “review” of their Croydon plans, and cancelled demolition work on the ageing Whitgift Centre that was due to commence last autumn.

Such has been the impact of that review, and the worsening economic situation in retailing even before coronavirus, that Croydon was removed entirely from URW’s pipeline of developments earlier this year.

Having presided over six years of delays and broken promises, Newman and the council chief exec, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, have repeatedly been challenged to take some action, or reveal their “Plan B”. At every turn, and against all available evidence, Newman and Negrini have expressed their confidence that Westfield will deliver for Croydon.

Which is why Fitzsimon’s statements on social media yesterday signal more than just a subtle “pivoting” in the position of the Labour-run council.

Reacting to the latest Westfield news, where a three-storey House of Fraser anchor store in west London is to be converted into offices, Fitzsimons tweeted, “Clear that traditional shopping centres aren’t working, including Westfield’s Shepherd’s Bush.

“If the most profitable centres are rethinking the concept, it makes sense for radical overhaul of the proposals for Croydon.”

What a difference a fortnight makes: How Fitzsimons swallowed the ‘fully committed’ line at the end of May

The original Westfield plans for Croydon were unveiled in 2012 by Tory MP Gavin Barwell – then a board member of the Whitgift Foundation, the owners of the Whitgift Centre – and his mate, Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London at the time.

Since taking charge of the Town Hall in 2014, Newman, Fitzsimons and their Labour colleagues have had a “continuity” policy over Westfield, acting as cheerleaders for the project rather than taking a more measured, arm’s-length approach with the developers.

It seems that now, the Croydon Labour party line is to try – desperately – to shift the blame for the parlous state of the town centre.

“Croydon town centre was torn apart in 1950s and 1960s by Tory politicians,” Fitzsimons tweeted, attempting to score party political points, “which destroyed much of the traditional streetscape, creating a retail island in the Whitgift Centre, with minimal investment in London Road or Old Town shopping areas.”

It would be reasonable to point out that there has been “minimal investment” in London Road or Old Town since 2014, too, as Fitzsimon’s own council has obsessed over the promises of Westfield.

It was then that Fitzsimons went on to describe what might end up becoming Croydon’s long-overdue “Plan B”.

Changed man: Fitzsimons yesterday, when he went on to describe Westfield’s Croydon plans as ‘outdated’

“Integrating [the] Whitgift Centre into the Croydon streetscape with a mix of residential, retail and offices with public right of way through the area 24 hours a day, is the way forward, rather than those who hark backwards with their call for the outdated proposals of last few years.”

That would be the same “outdated proposals of the last few years” that Fitzsimon’s own council was itself supporting so enthusiastically up to the end of May.

Endorsing Fitzsimon’s analysis, his deputy leader, Stuart Collins, expressed a view that echoed what most observers had been warning about since… around 2011. “Reality is there is a changing retail world,” Collins responded to his councillor colleague.

Collins, who is not a real politician, then added, “It is not our money to gamble with.”

It might be worth making a note of that, from the deputy leader of a council with debts of £1.5billion accumulated before covid-19 arrived.

For Collins made his “gamble” remarks on the day that Inside Croydon was reporting the financial administration of the company which runs the Croydon Park Hotel, where Croydon Council had gambled nearly £30million in buying the freehold in 2018.


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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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4 Responses to Labour councillors signal major Town Hall U-turn over Westfield

  1. Rod Davies says:

    In my opinion there needs to be a real debate across communities about how the town should develop its centre. The debate needs to be informed by the realities of the market and not shaped by pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
    The retail sector has changed irrevocably. Whitgift Centre was built to serve the communities of the 1980’s at best, and since then Croydon has changed and so too have the disparities between the various communities. Whereas in the 70’s when I made an early foray to Croydon to see Amon Duul II at the Greyhound, it was apparent that ordinary working class people had surplus cash to spend. Now almost 50 years later it is the old, my generation, that has cash, but we don’t want to buy much and we tend not to have dependents at home to clothe and feed.
    Retail rents and business rates do not reflect the economic realities, and retail property space is no longer the cash-cow much loved by the financial institutions.
    So what do we want? Is it achievable and desirable? I invite everyone to get on board and engage in constructive debate and not to leave it to a handful of politicians, however well-meaning.

    • I agree with all that Rod Davies says and implies but must point out that the phrase ” politicians, however well meaning” is a classic oxymoron if used in Croydon for any of Tony Soprano’s supine acolytes.

    • sebastian tillinger says:

      Yes, the development of Croydon’s town centre is MUCH too important to be left in the hands of Negrini, Newman and Scott. Everyone has seen the Lego-land proposals they’re making for the public space alongside Fairfield Halls. It’s lazy, cynical, client-patronage that’s been the unmaking of Croydon in recent years.

      The borough will rue the day they allow Negrini, Newman and Scott to have another go at the town centre. London has some of the best architects, urban thinkers, development strategists and planning visionaries in the world. These three are nowhere close to even making this list,

      I don’t know what the answer is, there are people who know much better than I do: perhaps it’s a Croydon Planning Commission?

      However, the answer is NOT a £20k ‘ideas’ competition in the Architects Journal. That’s for sure.

  2. Lewis White says:

    A further thought, which would provide a way of using the excess heat from the new office buildings– a Croydon Town centre Lido, with sunbathing lawns and enough trees to give some dappled shade. The open air pool, located in the Whitgift centre redevelopment, in a nice green square, would be heated with waste heat from computer suites. A glass house on rails could be wheeled over the open air pool to give shelter in the coldest months. They have those in the big horticultural growers.

    We used to have a Victorian baths in Scarbrook Hill, until the 60’s as I recall. Not cosy, and not how the Lido would be. There are going to be a lot of people living in Croydon in the new blocks. They are going to get suicidally bored stuck in their tiny flats on the 36th- 56th floor. So, for the sake of their health, the Lido will give sunshine, water and exposure to the open air.

    One of the things I have noticed about people in the covid lockdown is how healthy and tanned people who were previously pallid, indoor people are now, as a result of not being “locked down” like battery chickens in offices –under artificial light– for 7 or 8 hours a day. The have been out and about walking in the streets and spending time in their gardens in the sun–which itself has been astonishly bright, due to absence of aircraft vapour trails. They seem happier, if they are not worrying about income.

    If the Whitgift is replaced by buildings fronting on to tradititional open air streets, the shop workers can easily nip out and get some sunshine too. Since the 1970’s our daily exposure to air and light– for those working in offices and shops — has reduced. There seemed to be a concept in operation –probably realised in the US and imported here– that from cradle to grave, we should be indoors, “protected” from rain and sun, travelling by car from our front door to the office or shopping mall, then moving by travellator to the shop or office from the multi storey car park. For me, a form of Hell, exemplified at its hottest and most Hellish by the Duty Free at Gatwick Airport.

    Clients, developers, architects and designers have contrived to confine us all indoors in air-con and strip lights. It can’t be good for us to be like this for years at a time, stuck in front of computer screens, getting no execise. Roofed over malls like Whitgift and Centrale surely cannot be good for the workers’ health?

    In fact, I think that by law, all shop and office workers should get a paid, regular “sunshine break” in addition to lunch.

    Getting back to Whitgift, I hope that direct sunshine in the streets and shopping areas, open air and strategic greening –and water– will be high on the Council and Whitgift designers’ agenda.

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