Croydon 2021: Macarnage, Fairfield fiasco and dropped Bricks

DID WE HAVE NEWS FOR YOU: Summer in south London’s rottenest borough saw simmering scandals over Brick by Brick and the Fairfield Halls fiasco grab national notoriety, and someone at the council finally admitted that the misconceived Westfield scheme was pushing up the daisies

JULY

Macarnage: some developers appear to get preferential treatment from the council’s planners

It won’t surprise anyone that many of our readers are most animated over planning issues. So the recurring story of how one firm of developers, Macar, continues to be given an easy ride over their overdevelopments by the council’s planning department was prominent this month.

That one of Macar’s directors is married to a senior member of the council’s planning staff is, the council assures the public it is supposed to serve, sheer coincidence. That that planning officer failed properly to declare his relationship with the developers’ director was also not worthy of any disciplinary action, the council maintained. So that’s alright then.

How Macar was allowed to build 15 homes on one site, in the course of which destroyng a beautiful Arts and Crafts house on Coulsdon Court Road, without contributing a single unit towards the borough’s affordable housing stock was probably entirely coincidental and perfectly alright, too. The required minimum for developers is to provide is 30 per cent affordable housing on sites with 10 or more units.

Massive mansions: the proposed blocks would dwarf other buildings in Purley

Just a couple of miles up the road, and other developers who have also cosied up with the Croydon Establishment caused outrage when they brought forward a scheme for 247 flats on a site beside Purley railway station.

The massive development involves five mansion blocks of flats that would cover the pitch at Wembley Stadium three times over.

And then there’s the cash-strapped council’s land sales, often of precious green space and heritage buildings – though the borough’s politicians, blue as well as red, appear to make a habit of trampling over the bequests of the Riesco family.

There was a public outcry in July over proposals to lease Heathfield House and fence off the land around it, potentially forcing a local ecology charity to close.

Heathfield House is the former home of Raymond Riesco and his family, which was acquired for the people of Croydon after the industrialist’s death in the 1960s.

Wrecking crew: council plans could ruin the listed building’s gardens

The Victorian villa-style house in the Addington Hills has been poorly maintained and neglected by Croydon Council over the past couple of decades, during which time it has been used by the authority for staff training and meetings, and the gardens and surrounding fields have been well used by charity the Croydon Ecology Centre.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, Heathfield House was used by Cressey College, a special educational needs school, and they have applied to lease the building longer term. To facilitate that, the ham-fisted council wants to fence off parts of the listed building’s Italianate terrace and sunken gardens to create a boundary.

It won’t be the last instance of a public open space being despoiled by the council to make good the money lost in the financial collapse under the discredited council leader, Tony Newman.

Lots of damage: Tony Newman’s mistakes will cost Croydon for decades

Coverage of these issues all remained local, though one long-running Croydon saga did manage to break out into the national media this month, when the theatre industry’s trade mag, The Stage, finally woke up to the five-year scandal surrounding the Fairfield Halls’ £70million botched and incomplete refurbishment.

The Stage interviewed Neil Chandler, the venue director at the Fairfield Halls who quit his job less than six months after the council-owned arts centre was reopened. Chandler delivered some withering criticism of the people behind the bungled refurb project, including council chiefs and, naturally, Brick by Brick.

According to Chandler, “Brick by Brick did not know what it was doing.”

Pity that Chandler failed to make such a frank and clearly accurate assessment public two or three years earlier…

AUGUST

Gone missing: the Peter Youngman art work, alongside the Fairfield Halls before the refurbishment began in 2016. Council officials have failed to state where the work is located now

Not only had the council squandered £70million on the Fairfield Halls botch job, but in the process they’d managed to lose some original street art from the site. In what Jo “Negreedy” Negrini had tried to brand as Croydon’s “Arts Quarter”. This, in the 2023 London Borough of Culture…

As Inside Croydon reported in August, missing and unaccounted for is an art installation, in a modernist, geometric style, the work of influential landscape architect Peter Youngman – one of the designers of post-war new towns Cumbernauld and Milton Keynes. The artwork had been a permanent feature of College Green, the open space between the Halls and Croydon College, from 1976.

As dead as a parrot: Westfield’s Croydon scheme is no more, it’s pushing up the daisies…

But August did, at least, and at last, see the council face up to the reality which had been as plain as day for at least six years: Westfield weren’t ever going to build their £1.4billion temple to retail in the town centre.

According to a report to the council cabinet entitled Post-Covid Vision for the Town Centre, the long-promised but always badly misconceived 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.

SEPTEMBER

Chinese whispers: will conversion work on the tower ever be finished?

Another month, another crisis over planning and development. This one, though, was created half a world away, in China, where the property development market was in a tailspin.

R&F Properties, the Chinese owners of the Nestlé Tower, St George’s Walk beneath it and the neighbouring Grade II-listed Segas House in the town centre, appeared to be struggling to meet the Beijing government’s rules to reduce developers’ debt.

R&F, based in Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, acquired the Croydon properties in a £60million deal in March 2017. Work on R&F’s £500million Queen’s Square project got underway in 2019, with the beginning of the repurposing of the 22-storey Nestlé Tower office block into 288 private flats.

There was, in common with many other building sites, a hiatus in works in 2020 because of coronavirus, but the site has now been idle for nearly two years.

Negreedy: the only growth zone in Croydon when Jo Negrini was CEO was her salary

Delays in delivering what was presented as a “prestigious” and “iconic” development will be just the latest blow to the “vision” presented by the likes of snake oil vendors Newman, Negrini and former planning chair Paul Scott of “ambitious” Croydon and their town centre “Growth Zone”.

The Nestlé Tower – one of Croydon’s first landmark skyscrapers, built in 1964 – has been standing vacant since 2012, after the eponymous Swiss food multinational quit the office building – inevitably, following a spat with the local council.

There were more concerns raised about the Fairfield Halls this month, though not about the botched refurbishment but over the way the artistic programme was being run into the ground by council-appointed operators BHLive.

BHLive are swimming pool and leisure centre managers based in dozy Dorset, with only flimsy experience of operating a thriving regional arts centre, as Croydon’s Fairfield Halls once was.

“The Fairfield’s become the gift that keeps giving,” one Halls source told Inside Croydon.

“They’ve taken millions from Croydon Council, in furlough payments and from Arts Council England, but they have demonstrated precisely bugger all to Croydon as to why they deserved it.

Empty: operators BHLive are criticised for their artistic programme, or lack of one

“Croydon has been through one hell of a year, and I’m not talking about covid. The borough must come back stronger. We need our Croydon arts centre to be run by Croydon artists, performers and producers, not a bunch of fitness freaks and swimming pool lifeguards from Bournemouth.

“Bring back local management, a trust run for and by the arts community of our creative borough. A trust that delivers for the borough rather than takes.”

Croydon, in case it had slipped your mind, is London’s Borough of Culture in 2023.

Transport news always attracts strong levels of interest from our readers, and Transport for London’s plans to change 13 bus routes across Croydon and Sutton attracted some strong views.

TfL’s decision was justified by them after they held one of those lip-service public consultations.

All change: TfL’s re-routing will affect 13 existing routes, see others axed and bring in three new routes

With no prospect of the long-requested tram extension to the Royal Marsden Hospital at Belmont, TfL is seeking to deliver public transport for the “Cancer Hub” with new and re-routed bus services around Belmont, Sutton, Purley, Addiscombe and Waddon.

TfL consulted on the changes last year, as they seek to “rationalise” (a euphemism for cut) some services due to the reduced fares income they have suffered since the first covid lockdown.

TfL said, “After carefully considering all responses and feedback received, we have decided to go ahead with our proposals with some amendments.” Fewer than 1,000 participated in the consultation, of which only 35 per cent supported the proposals.

The changes to the routes, and three new routes, were expected to be rolled out in 2022, though may ow be delayed because of the ongoing financial difficulties the transport operator is encountering due to covid.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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