CROYDON IN CRISIS: Do you feel ‘fortunate’ that the long-promised, council-backed scheme to regenerate the town centre has flopped? Because that’s the spin that Town Hall chiefs are putting on the collapse of the project and the end of a ‘Growth Zone’ that leaves a £310m black hole in borough budgets. By STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon’s cash-strapped council has no plans for making up the £310million in lost business rates that the collapse of the Westfield development in the Town Centre will cost the borough, while they are predicting nearly 8,000 jobs could be lost in the area due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Croydon Council will tonight formally wave the white flag and finally admit defeat after 10 years of pinning all the borough’s hopes for a town centre regeneration on multi-national development firms.
According to a report to the council cabinet entitled Post-Covid Vision for the Town Centre, the long-promised, £1.4billion Westfield and Hammerson redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre is dead. It is no more. It has passed on. Croydon Westfield has ceased to be. It’s pushing up the daisies. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker…
Well, you get the drift.
Mind you, regular readers of Inside Croydon will have made the same assessment nearly three years ago, but only after having to endure nearly a decade of the borough’s politicians – from Tory MP Gavin Barwell to Labour council leader Tony Newman – lining up to act as cheerleaders for the developers, rather than holding the line with the multi-nationals to obtain guarantees and the best possible outcome for the people they are supposed to represent.
The eventual abandonment of a shiny new temple to consumerism is an entirely predictable consequence of nearly 20 years of increasingly rapid decline in the high street retail sector.
In February 2019, with Westfield under new, French owners, the scheme was doomed when Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield began a “review” into the project, long before the first impact of Brexit had been felt, or anyone had heard of coronavirus.
When, in February 2020, URW took Croydon out of their “pipeline” of future projects, the council had already had 12 months’ notice that it needed to make alternative arrangements. But neither Newman, nor his Westfield-friendly council chief executive, Jo Negrini, were ever prepared to admit that they had got this all very, very wrong.
Tonight’s “Post-Covid Vision” report is the work of council execs Sarah Hayward and Heather Cheesbrough (both Negrini appointees) and clueless councillor Oliver “Shit Show” Lewis (who was promoted beyond his abilities by Newman).
No one will be surprised to discover that the report offers little “vision”, beyond a pitiful 50 grand towards using one of the many vacant shops in the Whitgift Centre so that members of the public can stroll in and share their ideas on how to retrieve the situation. Good luck with that.
Sections of the report may provoke justifiable anger among many of the business owners who have seen their life’s work and livelihoods sacrificed by the council in various attempts to placate Westfield and their partners.
According to Lewis, who is known at the council for being officer-led, the borough is apparently “fortunate that the 2018 development did not proceed”. Fortunate?
That is unlikely to be the view shared by the traders who were evicted from the Allders building by the council to make way for the long-promised Westfield redevelopment.
Nor by the many businesses who feel trapped in the increasingly decrepit Whitgift Centre, still paying business rates while hanging on in the hope of receiving some compensation from the council’s Compulsory Purchase Order.
Nor by the hundreds of new Croydon residents, many of whom paid thousands of pounds extra to buy their “executive apartments” on the premise that they were moving to some kind of wining, dining and shopping Nirvana.
Lewis and his council colleagues, especially the discredited Newman, have spent years claiming that the Westfield scheme was exactly what Croydon needs, while being in complete denial that there were any problems with it going forward, and making regular public pronouncements that all was just tickety-boo.
All this after Christophe Cuvillier, the group chief executive of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, wrote to Newman in March 2019, warning of “the deep structural changes currently facing retailers… illustrated by the growing number of bankruptcies, CVAs and retailers announcing declining financial results”.
Tonight’s cabinet report is the first in 10 years to reflect that kind of realistic assessment of the retail sector. The Westfield scheme, which in its 2018 iteration included 300 retail or hospitality units, plus 1,000 homes, is no longer an “appropriate or sustainable development”, according to the execs in Fisher’s Folly. No shit, Sherlocks.
In a further statement of the bleedin’ obvious, Lewis’s report states, “The Whitgift Centre now is very tired and requires a fresh approach away from a traditional model dominated by retail and anchored by department stores.” It’s a message which the council has been deaf to since at least 2016…
According to the council report, URW and Hammerson, the “Croydon Partnership”, now “need time to work through what this will mean for Croydon and the Whitgift”.
How much more time, Lewis’s report fails to state, yet again letting the multi-nationals off the hook as far as deadlines are concerned.
The developers and mall operators have been tinkering with their money-spinning plans for Croydon since 2012. The first scheme should have been built and open for business by 2017. The revised proposals that were given planning permission in 2018 – when they nearly doubled the amount of residential units in five tower blocks along Wellesley Road – was due to be finished in 2021.
According to the council’s report, URW and Hammerson, “are committed to work with the council, other town centre stakeholders and the communities to ensure that successful and fit-for-purpose proposals for the regeneration and redevelopment of the Whitgift and town centre are evolved.” Which is nice.
But the report fails to elaborate on exactly what that might involve, beyond suggestions of a plan to repurpose part of the former Allders building, possibly for an educational organisation – which seems likely to be a mere cut and paste proposal borrowed from the recent refit of Electric House for South Bank Poly.
Westfield made a series of promises over the years of the prosperity that their development would bring to Croydon, suggesting variously 5,000, 7,000, then 8,000 new jobs being created (though they never managed to specify how or where, or what kind of jobs they might be).
So it should be a matter of grave concern for all Croydon’s councillors that tonight’s report includes estimates from Oxford Economics that suggest that in covid-hit 2020 and 2021, the borough will have lost 7,800 jobs. Perhaps the borough might have been more “fortunate” to have a new and viable retail and hospitality centre, all built and ready to adapt to the changed post-covid circumstances and provide at least some economic activity and employment opportunities?
Instead, Croydon has little to offer, with a council as bankrupt of ideas as it is financially.
For the report also marks the end of Croydon Labour’s dream of delivering a “Growth Zone”.
The Growth Zone was another piece of mega-borrowing under Newman and his finance chief, Simon Hall, which promised to deliver £500million-worth of infrastructure, but which required the council to borrow £310million against the prospect of increased business rates income in future years.
Now that the Hammersfield supermall is no longer happening, neither will the council be in receipt of all that extra business rates cash. The £310million is part of the £1.5billion mountain of debt built up during Newman and Hall’s time in charge at the Town Hall.
The report to cabinet tonight makes no attempt to explain how that part of the black hole in the borough’s budgets until 2039 will be plugged.
As the report explains in typically turgid councilspeak, “The Growth Zone programme was originally established in 2016. It ring-fenced business rates growth from April 2018 (for 16 to 19 years) to enable borrowing to fund infrastructure to support growth. It was meant as a virtuous circle – early investment in infrastructure would lead to faster and better growth, which would in turn provide the business rates to repay the loan taken to fund said infrastructure.
“The original Growth Zone programme included an estimated £520million of projects supported by an initial £7million revenue grant from central government and a loan of £309.9million, with the balance (circa £210million) met from other sources including TfL, the GLA or S106 planning obligations.
“The £309.9million loan was based on the estimated future business rates the programme would be able to retain in the future, and therefore the repayments the programme would be able to make against that loan. When the Growth Zone financial model was built, a significant proportion of the estimated future business rates was dependent on the Whitgift Centre redevelopment being delivered as the programme was in 2018.” Those are our italics…
So guess, what? “The combination of the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre being slower, plus the impact of the pandemic that has affected the high streets means that the borrowing power of the Growth Zone programme and therefore its financial profile needs to be reviewed, as well as the associated programme of infrastructure…”
The report suggests that Croydon’s Growth Zone is another dead parrot: “It is expected that the programme will need to be considerably reduced.”
Read more: Crisis for Croydon as Westfield ‘reviews’ its £1.4bn scheme
Read more: Westfield scale down plans, leaving Croydon a ‘dead duckling’
Read more: Mary Portas, Westfield, Bradford and a £1bn hole in the ground
- Read the Post-Covid Vision report for council cabinet by clicking here
- Read the 2019 Westfield letter to Tony Newman by clicking here
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