Even without the global pandemic’s impact on the borough and its people, this has been an astonishing 12 months for news in Croydon. In this first part of our review of the year, Editor STEVEN DOWNES guides you through some of the most-read stories of the first four months of the year
Our two most-read news stories in the first month of the year involved two areas of continuing concern to our readers: Westfield and Brick by Brick.
The shiny new £1.4billion Westfield shopping mall had originally been promised to Croydon town centre by the end of 2017. Now it had become known as Wait-field, as any prospect of the development ever starting receded ever further into the distance as the slump in the retail sector deepened.
Questions were being asked in the House of Commons, as Croydon Central’s Labour MP Sarah Jones pitched for more government aid – in the form of business rates discounts – to help lure in the now French-owned shopping centre operators.
As we reported on January 24, “Referring to the long-promised temple to consumerism in typically public schoolgirl language as ‘fabulous’, Jones told the House of Commons, ‘Westfield is set to open a fabulous new shopping centre in Croydon, but the French owner of Westfield, Unibail-Rodamco, is worried about business rates, the state of retail and the impact of Brexit.
“’Will the Secretary of State please meet representatives of Westfield and Unibail-Rodamco to talk about some of those concerns?’”
For all the good that did. A fortnight later Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield pulled Croydon from its pipeline of future developments. And that was before coronavirus.
On January 11, Inside Croydon had broken the exclusive story of the latest multi-million-pound clusterfuck at Brick by Brick, the council’s blundering and loss-making house-builder.
As we reported at the time: “The majority of its provision of ‘affordable’ homes were supposed to be available through shared ownership, though it appears that [Colm] Lacey, who has subsequently transferred off the council staff and now glories in the title of ‘chief executive’ of Brick by Brick, forgot to do the paperwork to get his company recognised as a registered provider of shared ownership properties.”
Prospective buyers of Brick by Brick’s shared ownership homes could not get mortgages for the properties as a result, some losing thousands of pounds in legal and conveyancing fees as a consequence.
This was an important story, as it highlighted the mismanagement of millions of pounds of public-funded housing.
Brick by Brick has still never registered as a recognised supplier of shared ownership homes. According to the council’s auditors, £110million in unpaid interest, loan repayments and profits from Brick by Brick would prove to be a significant factor in the council going bust later in 2020.
As well as Westfield dumping Croydon, leaving its scheme as a “dead duckling”, according to one commercial property expert, another of the Town Hall’s pipe dreams was crumbling to dust before our eyes.
Inside Croydon was the first to report, on February 18, how Neil Chandler, the Fairfield Halls’ artistic director, had quit less than six months since the council-owned arts centre had finally re-opened after lengthy delays and multi-million-pound costs over-runs.
Oh, the bitter irony: Chandler’s departure came within a week of London Mayor Sadiq Khan naming Croydon as his “Borough of Culture” for 2023.
But to lighten the mood, at least we still had the vanity and hubris of Jo Negrini, the self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner” and chief executive of the council, and her 81-quid bus tour of the building sites and unfulfilled developments of the town centre. Canapés included.
Though like so many things Negrini promised, her bus tour never actually happened…
Our most read news report of March looked at the rapidly rising death rate in and around Croydon caused by coronavirus. Almost 11,000 people read the article in just two days before the end of the month, even though it was only published on March 30, a week after the country had gone into its first covid-19 lockdown.
The dangers of covid-19 appeared to be lost on Negrini. On March 17, after many other companies, councils and organisations had already made arrangements for their staff to quarantine themselves from the deadly virus by working from home, we reported a leaked memo from the council CEO’s office that stated, “Staff are advised to come into work as normal and continue to observe good office hygiene.”
Once again, Negrini was exposed as being out of step with the realities around her. Within a week, with infection rates rising steeply, the government would order the national lockdown.
By April 17, we were reporting the death of the first NHS worker in Croydon because of coronavirus.
Dr Krishan Arora was 57 and had worked at the Violet Lane Medical Practice in Waddon for 27 years. Croydon Clinical Commissioning Group confirmed that Dr Arora “tested positive for covid-19”, adding that “He was not at work in the time before he died.”
Dr Arora was one of the first 1,000 cases of coronavirus infections in the borough. By this week, eight months later, there has now been nearly 14,000 cases and more than 500 deaths.
Within a week of Dr Arora’s death, we were reporting that council worker Asha Walrond, had died of coronavirus. Walrond worked at New Addington’s Timebridge Community Centre as a customer service assistant and was the first council employee in Croydon to lose their life to the virus.
Walrond’s death came just 24 hours after it was announced that a New Addington-based paramedic, Ian Reynolds, had died from covid-19.
Faced with this unprecedented situation, Inside Croydon tried to reflect what life, and work, was like for those workers on the frontline, trying to deal with the impact of covid-19 while their own lives were at risk.
On April 10, we reported how a TV news crew had visited what they called a ward on “one of the worst affected hospitals in London”. Sky News was reporting from Croydon’s Mayday Hospital where 1-in-4 of the patients admitted with covid-19 do not survive.
“Patients are understandably frightened, staff are frightened as well, frightened that they can’t automatically make patients better, they can’t make this better, and they’re frightened for themselves, their loved ones and their colleagues,” chief nurse Elaine Clancy told the television news reporter.
Reports from Mayday and other frontline hospitals in London over the past week suggest, worryingly, that the current situation is just as bad, if not worse.
Meanwhile, other business in the borough, including the frequently questionable practices at the council’s planning department, continued, in the increasingly sordid-looking case of the council planning official married to the director of a local development firm and the lingering questions over whether he properly declared this blatant conflict of interests.
As we reported on April 8, “Heather Cheesbrough, one of Croydon’s most senior directors, has been accused of misleading the public and the elected councillors on the planning committee in a council cover-up over whether one of her staff properly declared an interest in advance over a multi-million-pound development in Purley.”
Last month, Inside Croydon reported how Cheesbrough – a Negrini appointee – had decided to leave Croydon Council. It would be fair to suggest she would not be much missed.
“It was like working under the boss in The Devil Wears Prada,” one staffer in the planning department told this website.
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