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.
“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.
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.”
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”.
“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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