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”.
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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