Our retailing correspondent MT WALLETTE reports that covid’s impact on the High Street leave little hope of Westfield’s long-promised redevelopment on North End any time soon
One-tenth of shops in London are now vacant, according to the latest figures for the retail industry. And averages across the whole country for vacancies are even worse, with the British Retail Consortium saying that 1-in-7 shops are empty.
“After a third national lockdown, it is no surprise that the vacancy rate has continued to soar,” BRC chief Helen Dickinson said today.
The continuing and worsening downturn for retailing is seeing the operators of large shopping centres, such as Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, look to shift the focus of their businesses, towards the ever-booming residential sector.
Westfield this week unveiled revised plans for a £1.3billion scheme at White City, including 1,760 new homes, an increase of 75 per cent on their previously approved proposals.
But there’s no such announcement for Westfield’s long-promised Croydon redevelopment. It is now more than two years since the French-owned Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield announced that they were going to “review” their Croydon scheme, and 14 months since they removed it from their “pipeline” of developments altogether.
With High Street businesses already in freefall, the repeat covid-19 lockdowns on “non-essential retail” have hit town centres, such as Croydon, very hard.
While there has been a significant boost to trading since the partial lifting of lockdown on April 12, the owners and developers behind Croydon’s two major shopping centres – Hammerson, the owners of Centrale, and Westfield – are having to prepare for a significantly different way of doing business.
And that’s unlikely to include the £1.4billion redevelopment of Croydon’s Whitgift Centre which was promised by local landowners and Tory politicians – including Boris Johnson – nearly a decade ago. Under plans pushed by Gavin Barwell when he was MP for the area, Croydon’s Westfield centre was originally supposed to be open for business in 2017.
The development blight caused by Westfield’s on-off-on-off again dalliance with the borough has devastated Croydon’s once-bustling town centre. There’s no immediate sign that anything will be improved any time soon.
In a lengthy interview with Retail Gazette this week, Scott Parsons, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s chief operating officer in the UK, spoke at length about how his company’s business will have to adapt to the post-covid “new-normal”.
Parsons never mentioned Croydon once in the whole interview.
“Sadly, we’ve seen over the last year of the covid-19 crisis that not all retailers are going to make it,” Parsons told the trade magazine.
“Where they left space, we have to be a lot more innovative and open-minded in how we fill that space, because it may not be a traditional retailer that’s lining up to fill it. Maybe we’ve got to be a bit more flexible and think about shorter-term leases and pop-ups.”
The Whitgift Centre is owned by the Whitgift Foundation, Croydon’s biggest landowners, but they have been enduring falling rents on the site for 10 years, with their office space vacated and the shopping centre increasingly run-down.
The Foundation imposed Westfield on their leaseholders for redevelopment in 2011, eventually being forced into a partnership with Hammerson, the owners of the neighbouring Centrale on the other side of North End.
Hammerson have been particularly badly hit by falling revenues over recent years, even before covid-19, as some larger department stores, tenants in their malls, which include the Birmingham’s Bullring and London’s Brent Cross, have gone bust and closed.
Earlier this month, Hammerson said it was cutting rents in a bid to help revive outlets.
The BRC’s Dickinson said today, “The forced closure of thousands of shops during the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated already difficult conditions for the retail industry. We estimate there are around 5,000 fewer stores since the start of the pandemic.”
The government’s business rates relief, introduced as a covid support measure for retailers, is due to end in England this summer. Restrictions on enforcing evictions are also due to end. Dickinson said this would mean more stores may never reopen.
“The devolved nations have already agreed to extend the business rates holiday until 2022 and England should consider following suit,” she said.
Westfield’s own trading figures, also reported this week, showed that turnover for the first quarter of 2021 at their Shepherd’s Bush and Stratford centres had fallen by 30.4 per cent year-on-year to £410.9million.
Gross rental income on a proportionate basis reached £436million, a decline of 33.4 per cent on the first quarter of last year.
“The group’s centres were effectively closed for an average of 42 days in the first quarter, with the exception of essential retail,” group chief executive Jean-Marie Tritant said when releasing the latest business report.
“Combined with the ongoing closure of all convention and exhibition venues, the group’s performance in the quarter was strongly impacted, and we anticipate 2021 to remain very challenging with tougher and longer restrictions impacting the group beyond Q1.
“While we saw encouraging leasing activity as brands continue to choose our locations in preparation for the post-Covid-19 market rebound, our overall vacancy rate did increase slightly in Q1 as a result of the lagged impact of the pandemic on retailers.
“We see positive signs of a return to normality whenever restrictions are eased, thanks to pent-up consumer demand for our high-quality shopping destinations…
“In addition, the strong return of UK footfall, reaching 75 per cent of 2019 levels and 1.2million visits in the first week after reopening, despite ongoing indoor food and beverage and entertainment closures, is an encouraging sign of the appetite we expect to see across all markets.
“As outlined at the full-year results, the varied pace of vaccination progress and the resulting recovery trajectory of each of our markets means the group still lacks sufficient visibility to provide a full-year outlook at this time.”
That “lacks sufficient visibility to provide a full-year outlook” is boardroom-speak for: “we haven’t got a Scooby Doo whether we’re be paying out any dividends to our shareholders”.
Which also explains why the company is pivoting towards that more dependably profitable use of real estate, bricks and mortar.
When Westfield got planning permission for their White City part-retail, part-residential development in 2017, they proposed 1,093 homes around a 1.4-acre public space.
The revised scheme unveiled this week has 1,760 homes, of which 355 are expected to be affordable – including 86 earmarked for affordable rented accommodation.
“Since the original permission was granted, the local area has undergone significant regeneration, the surrounding development context has varied and most importantly, the needs of the local community have changed,” was the flim-flam offered by URW director Keith Whitmore, as his company responds to the real risk that big shopping centres could be loss-making white elephants within this decade.
Which also makes it unlikely that Westfield will be rushing to redevelop central Croydon any time soon.
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