A former deputy council leader has spoken publicly about their deep regret for their part in bringing developers, such as Westfield, to their town centre, leaving it as “a tragedy of a place now”.
“There’s plenty of nostalgia and lots of official corporate rah-rah about culture, but not a single drop of honesty, least of all from those who lead us,” said the ex-politician.
Sadly for the put-upon residents and businesses of Croydon, this belated mea culpa comes not from any of the third-rate politicians, Tory and Labour, who have dug their town centre into a massive hole, but from a former councillor in Bradford, where Westfield became known as “Wastefield”.
There, the developers really did leave a massive great hole in the town centre for a decade – a warning which was ignored by Croydon’s civic leaders.
Simon Cooke is the Tory former deputy council leader for Bradford who was responsible for the Yorkshire city’s regeneration from 2000 to 2006. It was Cooke who laid out the Welcome Mat for Westfield.
Last week, Cooke visited the now run-down and uninviting city centre. Westfield eventually abandoned their interest in Bradford and left it to someone else to fill-in their great hole, but not before the downturn in high street retailing had taken firm hold.
After his visit, Cooke wrote, “We got so much wrong by chasing land value that didn’t exist.
“And the council is still doing this.
“The length of Darley Street is probably 75 per cent empty and features a parade of forlorn To Let signs – even where once were charity shops.” Sound familiar?
“What a tragedy of a place it is now.”
Cooke claimed that successive council leaders – including himself – had been living “in a fool’s paradise of vain future hope for the city centre”.
In Croydon, grand plans for what would eventually be a proposed £1.4billion regeneration of the town centre were unveiled in 2012 by Westfield together with Centrale owners Hammerson (whatever has become of them?), fronted up by Gavin Barwell, then the MP for the Whitgift Foundation, and Boris Johnson.
Croydon no longer rates very high on Johnson’s list of spectacular incompetence and clusterfucks, but the then Mayor of London’s role in consigning the town centre to years of development blight and misery should never be underestimated.
In Croydon, Johnson forced unwilling Hammerson into an unwanted partnership with Westfield, in return for providing planning permission on their scheme at Brent Cross. Neither project has delivered on its promises.
It was not long after the grand announcement of Croydon’s shiny new future, and after a succession of development directors had been and gone from the council offices, that Aussie Jo Negrini, the self-declared “regeneration practitioner”, suddenly arrived from Newham. There, Negrini had a reputation for getting on very well with the Australians who were in charge at Westfield by, basically, doing everything they asked at their new supermall beside the Olympic Park at Stratford.
But for every Stratford success story, there’s a salutary warning from somewhere else, such as Bradford, where the civic powers-that-be had rolled over before the rapacious developers. Inside Croydon offered up some warnings from the Yorkshire city’s experience: Bradford’s new Broadway centre did not open until 2015; Westfield had moved in on the site in 2004.
In his summary of the failures of local government to deliver a satisfactory solution for residents, existing businesses and the developers, Cooke’s observations will be familiar with those who have followed Croydon’s similarly sorry saga.
“Each iteration of council leadership intones the same collection of platitudes about ‘great times ahead’ and ‘we’re turning the corner’,” Cooke wrote.
“And there’s always a new generation of enterprising folk who promise a great future but are dragged down by the economic realities of the city.”
In Bradford, as in Croydon, the local council remains wedded to some version of retail development, without any real idea of how this might work, even before covid-19.
“Don’t we just create another desert of decaying buildings, dying businesses, drugs and decline?” Cooke asked.
Cooke’s vision for Bradford city centre might surprise many, and prompt others to ask how it might be paid for: “Twenty years ago Will Alsop (the masterplan architect) told us to knock a lot of the city down and then ignore the developers to make it a park.
“This didn’t compute for the regeneration ‘experts’ because they – we really – deluded ourselves about land values that didn’t exist.
“So we pretended to implement the masterplan but ignored the anti-development message in favour of shiny blocks of offices and a new sparkling shopping centre.
“Most people in the city have given up caring about the city centre they never visit.
“There’s plenty of nostalgia and lots of official corporate rah-rah about culture, but not a single drop of honesty, least of all from those who lead us.
“We had the chance to do something different and we ducked it – too scary, too radical. It may be too late but even so, we’re still ducking it.”
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I think there is so much potential in Croydon town centre. There’s scope for more housing and leisure facilities, venues for live music, comedy. Innovative thinking is needed and a can do attitude and including the local community in working out how best to develop the town centre.
I agree with Moya.
The core problem I suspect of town centre renewal is that landowners and owners of buildings look to th e past, and want to keep values as high as they were. No-one wants to take a loss, even if, in the case of rich owners, they can have a derelict site sitting in a semi-mothballed state for decades, like St George’s Walk. I note that at long last, the developer has had the courage tio go ahead. Let’s hope that is a huge success.
Whitgift has potential, as Moya says, because it is big enough to create–not just blocks — but a new urban environment.
My fear for central Croydon in general is that we end up with far too many huge blocks, rearing into the sky, and not enough at ground level, in the form of usable landscape of well-designed walkways, sunny squares, new trees, and the things that make lfe worth living–and makes urban living humane. Human storage blocks– with everyone self-isolated in their allocated slot– is the negation of waht makes a city worth living in.
I would love to see a chunk of Whitgift restored to become a new park. A twin to Queen’s Gardens, but without the overshadowing inflicted disgracefully upon QG by the Taberener House redevelopment, where council greed has banged too many high blocks on a tiny site.
The chances of having a new park on part of Whitgift are slim, but developers do seem to be realising the beneefits to sales and prices of having a mix of blocks of flats around green spaces at the Elephant and Castle. These give a guide as to a better, more liveable, greener environment, which most people want, and we all need for physical and mental health.
An inner Croydon Lido with linked indoor and outdoor pools , with a secure landscape of sunbathing lawns and some trees for summer shade, and heated with waste heat from office computer suites, would provide a great centrepiece.
Brilliant ideas Lewis. Public consultation is the way forward. Innovative ideas are desperately needed in all our towns and cities.
Bricks and mortar retail is in trouble as no one will invest in it unless they know they will see a profit. Stores have shed tens of thousands of jobs this year and have blamed Covid 19 but it was the final blow to a long drawn out death.
I feel Westfield have been trying to back out of the Croydon development for at least the five years and since that point the council have had their head in the sand.
Bradford has been there to see before this started and I asked about it at one of their roadshows years ago and the conversation ended pretty quickly as no one wanted to think about it.
The damage is done and Croydon needs to look forward and like every other high street, they will have to try something new.
It’s no good creating spaces for shops to go but we need to create an environment where they can prosper.
Landlords need to play their part, as does the council and the government in helping these businesses.
Perhaps rent, rates and taxes should be tied to profit rather than just taken off the top and the retail/homes/office space is worth pursuing rather than rows and rows of empty shops or chain coffee shops filled with bored customers staring at their phones.
It’s a shame it never happened and the signs were always there it would be hard to complete but let’s hope something wonderful can be built from the ashes.