Westfield wants to revive plans for Croydon’s blighted centre

More than three years after shelving their £1.4bn scheme for the town centre, the developers’ monster mall is back on the drawing board – but with significant differences. By STEVEN DOWNES

Back to the future: Westfield Mk 3 could look much different from these CGI plans released in 2012

Like a Frankenstein monster after being given a shot of 1,000 volts, the Westfield redevelopment of Croydon town centre appears to have come back from the dead.

Westfield say that they want to revive their Croydon development, despite having left the Whitgift Centre and North End to rot after a decade of blight imposed by their on-off-on-off again supermall scheme.

A senior figure in the parent company behind the Croydon project has told Sky News that Westfield is working up proposals for a new planning application – their third for the town centre – after the previous planning permission expired, unused.

“These things take time, but I think Croydon is a great destination with a lot of potential,” said Scott Parsons, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s chief operating officer for the UK.

More flats: from 600 to 900, to… ? URW’s Scott Parson suggests there could be more tower blocks coming along Wellesley Road than under previous schemes

And, despite the scandalous disregard with which the people and businesses of Croydon have been treated by the arrogant mall developers, Jason Perry, Croydon’s new Mayor, has this week gone cap-in-hand to Westfield.

Perry is apparently desperate for any development to drag the town centre – described by trade magazine Draper’s Record as “a retail graveyard” – out of the development mire that was created for it by the very same company, in cahoots with his Conservative Party colleagues.

It’s been nearly three-and-a-half years since Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield bailed out of their glitzy £1.4billion Croydon plans, a situation deemed to be so dire for the future of the town centre that Tony Newman, the now discredited ex-leader of the council, tried to keep the harsh truth from the people of Croydon.

The original scheme, Westfield Mk 1, had been unveiled in 2012 after being brokered for the Whitgift Foundation, the landowners, by the then Tory MP Gavin Barwell and Boris Johnson, during his time as London Mayor. Although high street retail had already been in decline for a decade even then, the big, blousy plans promised a shopping Nirvana, and was all due to be opened by 2017.

By February 2019, without a sod being turned on the site nor a brick laid, and with Westfield under new, French ownership, the scheme was doomed when URW announced what they described as a “review” into the project, long before the first impact of Brexit had been felt, or anyone had heard of coronavirus.

Another fine mess: Boris Johnson at the announcement in 2012 that brought together Hammerson and Westfield

When, in February 2020, URW took Croydon out of their “pipeline” of future projects, it was as if they had turned off the life support for Croydon town centre.

Westfield Mk 2 had been granted its planning permission by a pliant council in 2018, but that had come at considerable administrative cost to the local authority, requiring a public inquiry by the government planning inspector and a council-funded Compulsory Purchase Order for large chunks of the town centre.

Dozens of small traders were put out of business, some permanently, when the council forcibly evicted them from the old Allders building in the summer of 2019, ostensibly for the convenience of Westfield and their Croydon partners, Hammerson. Yet nothing happened, and the Allders building has stood empty ever since.

The 2018 planning permission had seen the proportion of residential development included in the scheme almost doubled, to nearly a thousand flats – “luxury apartments” – arrayed in tower blocks above a supermall car park along Wellesley Road.

Westfield Mk 3 seems likely to be much the same, but with knobs on.

In Sky News’s latest business podcast, Parsons said that his company is working up revised plans for Croydon.

‘Potential’: URW’s Scott Parsons

He made it clear that any new plan will be significantly different from what has been presented before.

In this post-Brexit, post-covid world of online deliveries, Parsons’ company is having to re-invent itself, moving away from its reliance on big department stores paying top-dollar rents.

Adjustments are already being made at Westfield’s other London centres, at Stratford and Shepherds Bush, the models that gullible Croydon politicians were shown and promised back in 2012.

At Westfield London, the House of Fraser department store – one of the casualties of the perfect storm of the retail slump and covid – is being turned into a massive co-working space. More flats are also being built, with student accommodation and hotels being added into the mix. “A diverse destination,” Parsons called it.

“They’re not just places to shop,” he described the new vision for the company’s malls. The confection now appears to be some kind of concrete Mars bar. “They’re places to live, work and play,” he said.

“I think of this as a virtue. If you’re a young professional who is looking for an apartment, wouldn’t you love to have all the facilities of a Westfield right on your doorstep?

“It goes back to that destination factor, where you can live, work and play, all in the great destination in which we operate.”

After what Parsons, apparently a master of understatement, calls “two rough years”, footfall in Westfield’s two London centres is up to around 85per cent of pre-pandemic levels. “People are glad to be back out,” he said. “Online shopping is convenient, but it’s not fun.”

All change: Westfield at Shepherds Bush is getting co-working space and flats in place of a department store

In Croydon, Parsons hints that his company is starting again with a blank sheet of paper.

“The planning permission has indeed lapsed, because that planning permission was for a big, old shopping centre and, of course, the world’s moved on.

“I think the message for Croydon aligns with the ‘live, work, play’ message, as we re-shape our plans for Croydon town centre, it will involve everything, from residential, to office, to hotel and student housing, and not just shopping.

“Of course, the shopping, the food and beverage and the leisure will be a great anchor for the other uses that share that community space.”

Asked if he was “confident” that a development will take place, Parsons said, “I am. I am. These things take time, but I think Croydon is a great destination with a lot of potential.”

And, as if by magic, this week has seen Jason Perry, the borough’s new Mayor, holding meetings with the Croydon Partnership, URW and Hammerson.

No details of the nature of the discussions have been released, but with Westfield having in the past been enthusiastic donors to the Conservative Party, it seems highly likely that discussions have been going on for some months between the developers and Croydon Tories.

In his election manifesto, Perry has promised, “I will work with Westfield and Hammerson to get the town centre regeneration back on track.”

Perry, apparently, doesn’t possess a copy of the A to Z, or even have access to Google Maps. “Croydon has so much to offer and we need to revitalise our town centre with a mix of retail, jobs, education, homes and culture to put Croydon back on the map,” he said, grasping for the nearest cliché.

The unfettered drive for growth in the town centre, the failure of which did so much to hasten the downfall of the Newman regime and his council CEO, Jo Negrini, appears to be back on, with few, if any, lessons learned.

Town Hall talks: Mayor Jason Perry, centre, met with shopping mall developers yesterday

According to Perry, “Inward investment and new shops and businesses will bring an uplift in business rates that will feed into the council for the provision of better services.”

The reality is that the council can only play a bit part in any town centre redevelopment. Croydon Council remains pot-less. In any case, this has always been a private business scheme, using privately owned real estate, and potentially billions of private investment.

Perry and the council’s planners will only be on the sidelines, acting as nothing more than facilitators.

After his meeting with representatives from the Croydon Partnership yesterday, the council’s press release described the revived plans as “an opportunity to harness post-pandemic opportunities and new ways of shopping, working and living, through a new vision for the Croydon town centre as a regional destination”.

The language used – “shopping, working and living”, and “destination” – is uncannily similar to the corporatespeak adopted by Westfield’s Parsons.

“Croydon is one of the most connected and diverse boroughs in London and it’s time our town centre truly reflects this,” Mayor Perry said yesterday.

“I want our town centre to reflect the aspirations and evolving needs of our communities by embracing new retail offers, restaurants, cultural and entertainment venues for all our residents.”

What the Mayor failed to mention was how his family building suppliers business might benefit from all this new development, if it ever does go ahead.

Read more: Council concedes the end of its retail dream for town centre
Read more: Barwell, Brexit and Croydon’s troubled Westfield dream
Read more: Crisis for Croydon as Westfield ‘reviews’ its £1.4bn scheme

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About insidecroydon

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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28 Responses to Westfield wants to revive plans for Croydon’s blighted centre

  1. I heard that a picture has been taken of a’ Black Hole’ into which all viable matter is sucked. I didn’t know that the scientists had made their way to Croydon’s ‘shopping precinct’ to capture this! You can bet your boots that the ratio of high rise, high price flats to “leisure areas” shops or public amenity space will be highly in favour of the former. It seems that the strategy is to create planning blight then move in to maximise profits. The heart of Croydon is already a sad place, this will make it a terminal one.

  2. Judy Watson says:

    Jason Perry is the right person to take this forward on behalf of Croydon. I hope he gets the best deal for Croydon – for me it’s the quality of the public realm around the development – it cannot be sterile.

    In the past this was way beyond Tony Newman’s abilities.

    My only serious reservation is the council’s planning department. I think they are too useless to get the best outcome for Croydon.

    • derekthrower says:

      Jason Perry. A man you couldn’t trust to organise the party in a brewery. The developers have to do something because the compulsory purchase order has lapsed and the council have duties to observe with the laws they have utilised since they may be exposed to more legal obligations. From the photograph submitted looks like the underlings had been sent to placate the perilous Perry than anyone that would give anything like a final commitment.

  3. “to put Croydon back on the map” – where has Perry been? Croydon has been firmly on the map for several years, but for the wrong reasons. The whole nation is probably aware of its bankruptcy, dreadful public housing, failed investments etc. Furthermore it made headlines at the recent elections for a woefully slow count of the votes and eventually results that bucked the national trend. I suspect that “count” might be eligible for the Guinness Book of Records as the slowest on record.

  4. You’re right to be cynical, but this might be all we can reasonably expect. But your snipe at Jason Perry, suggesting he might personally benefit is well below IC’s unbiased, high moral and professional standards…

    • The new, £80,000 per year, plus expenses, Mayor has repeatedly ignored all calls to clarify how he will deal with the conflicting interests of his full-time civic duties and his day job of being director of his family business in the building trade.

      It is a matter of entirely legitimate public interest to raise this matter at every available opportunity.

      • Good point, well made. “Every available opportunity” indeed!

      • In builders merchanting terms, Carlton Building Plastics is a minnow that operates in a heavily commoditised niche sector. Although CBT seems to be a successful business, it is no golden goose unless it is eventually swallowed up by one of the big boys like Eurocell.

        To imagine that he could swing huge amounts of business through it as some sort of Westfield wangle is to perhaps not understand main consortia style contracting and how the materials supply chain works.

        All of the major consortia will have direct buying accounts with manufacturers – bricks, roofing, concrete etc etc – that deliver direct to site for them. The billing for these materials is often facilitated through the national merchant chains – Travis Perkins, Wolseley, Grafton – as manufacturers largely dare not deal (too) directly with contractors, lest they upset and lose their national merchant ‘retail’ networks. The rest of the stuff not booked direct with manufacturers, the national merchants will mop up/ handle through their contract and specification teams.

        Thus the idea that a relatively piddling independent like CBT will get a look-in is fanciful.

        Where CBT might benefit indirectly is that local authorities are obliged to consider ‘social value’ (Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012) when awarding contracts, and this may include construction.

        (I’m not sure Croydon has a stellar track record, as in most things, in this).

        This means that if Croydon is tendering ancillary works associated with Westfield, it may consider localism – what the contract/ contractor does for local employment, does it promote environmental initiatives, local charity involvement, work, does it support the community (sponsorships, pro bono work etc) and so on – as part of the Ts & Cs.

        It’s a developing area of social policy and worth keeping an eye on.

        Consequently, this MAY mean that some of CBT’s existing account customers MAY benefit from council work which in turn MIGHT augment CBT’s coffers and, by association, Jason Perry’s.

        But I’m sure that you’re not suggesting that, in the event of local, Croydon builders, benefiting from Westfield – especially if they are existing CBT customers – they should go out of their way to avoid gracing Mr Perry’s premises, are you?

        • Jackgriffin1933 says:

          PS/ Lawd knows why I refer to Carlton Building Plastics (CBP) as CBT through most of that! I must get some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to help with my CBT obsession…

  5. Peter Underwood says:

    Perry is following the Conservative Party mantra that everything should be left to the private sector. He refuses to acknowledge that this multinational company has no interest in what’s best for Croydon they only care about what makes the biggest profit.
    As a recent Financial Times article made clear, the age of department stores and destination shopping centres is over. With the amount of new flats already being built in Croydon there will be no rush to build even more. I suspect that means we will spend another four years hearing plans and promises while nothing changes.

    • miapawz says:

      unfortunately the magic money tree is bare so private money is all that is available. Lets hope this does not die on its ar5e like the previous scheme and that there is 1. actually affordable housing and council housing 2. a centre where normal citizens can gather and met and eat / have a coffee and a beer not some nasty cheap corporate wasteland.

    • Anita Smith says:

      So what is your alternative suggestion?

  6. Philip Worsfold says:

    If Westfield are serious then the new Mayor should demand an upfront non refundable advance of at least £40m so that if they pull out again the council are not left totally shafted.

    • Not a bad idea at all.

      It was a Tory scheme, to which Barwell, who held position with the landowners the Whitgift Foundation, had tied the borough to so disastrously.

      When Labour won the Town Hall in 2014, they had an opportunity to take a step back and instead of being cheerleaders for profit-hungry developers, become “critical friends”, representing the interests of Croydon’s residents and other businesses.

      Newman, however, was quick to jump into bed with Westfield, encouraged by Aussie Jo Negrini. It was a disastrous move.

      Croydon’s new Mayor has a choice. Devoted fan-dom for Westfield will just repeat the mistakes of recent, and painful, history.

  7. Anita Smith says:

    What is wrong with you? The man has only been in the job a week and already the sniping has started. Of course he must declare any conflicts of interest just like all the Labour officials did so assiduously (not) throughout their reign of terror.

    If Jason can get things started to revamp our town centre bring it on by whatever means possible. But from personal experience I believe that people are returning to the shops. Yesterday I ordered Tesco online and I had the choice of any delivery slot for today. During the pandemic you were lucky to get one at all. If Westfield say footfall is 85% this will continue to rise.

    Judge Jason Perry on what he has achieved in a year’s time. He appears to be keeping so far to his manifesto pledges. If he and his party can improve Croydon for the better then he deserves a chance to prove himself. Let’s save the nastiness for where it should lie, with the scumbags who deserve the blame and have so far escaped justice.

  8. derekthrower says:

    Nice to hear Tweedle-dee has his supporters now Tweedledum has stepped down.

  9. Anthony Miller says:

    Ultimately the land belongs to the Whitgift foundation. When are they going to realise they’ve been taken for a ride…? Because presumably someone is paying for plan after aborted plan after…

    • derekthrower says:

      I believe Gavin Barwell was a Governor on the Whitgift Foundation when he made his intervention to turn the Centre into a Super Development combining Hammerson & Westfield. They have unfortunately taken themselves for a ride, but undoubtedly they have lost a huge amount of returns from the subsequent inertia. Lets be in no doubt though, it is the Croydon Council Tax Payers who are facing the greatest burden from all this with the loss of economic activity due to the subsequent blight and for funding all the faciliatory costs such as the Compulsory Purchase Orders which have provided so far no return.

  10. brian says:

    Sadly we need a big bang to make Croydon a shopping destination again. Multiple outlets opening at the same time.

    Not one firm is going to come and set up shop in Croydon at the moment.

    Perry must make sure that he has solid, written with penalties, guarantees before he gets in too deep with Westfield.

    The saying goes “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” no-one thought there was a need to mention a third time

  11. Ian Pierce says:

    Let’s hope that Jason Perry will finally get something done with this project and the shopping centre and we can finally see a big improvement in Croydon I feel very sad when I walk through the town centre and se the state of it , it feels very strange to see the current building of all those tower blocks and yet we se very little done about the town and the community itself.

  12. Lewis White says:

    My bleakest fear/ prediction is that we just end up with a load of anodyne shops that look like a shopping mall, flats that look like a shopping mall, chain restaurants that found in shopping malls, and a few cinemas that look like a shopping mall and…. I could go on. All under cover, a few token trees dubbed “green infrastructure” and a nice big car park. A boring recasting of a boring template.

    I want to see a development that incorporates sheltered sunny outdoor spaces that are linked by new buildings and walkways, giving shops on the ground floor, with offices and flats above.

    Without the residential component, the site will just be dead after 5:30 pm.

    Will the developers do what is right for the site, and create a truly living town centre, or will they just do what they know how to do– malls ?

    I would love to see an open design competition for a masterplan for Whitgift.

    • Kevin Croucher says:

      I wish I knew the answer, I suppose I would be making a fortune as a property developer if I did! You can see one view of the future in Selsdon High Street, a load of food and drink outlets of one sort or another, nail bars and hairdressers with a few estate agents and charity shops thrown in.

  13. The fact is – none of us have the faintest idea how to regenerate the town centre and make it work for the community. All without losing a fortune in the process. If any of us had … we’d be millionaires (sorry Mr Greenwood). Asking the public for ideas, or God help us, ‘designs’ is whistling in the dark.

    Now, where did I put Mr Musk’s ‘phone number?

    • Lewis White says:

      Oh Christopher- I beg to disagree ! Whilst some of our fellow public have no design clue, and like what they know, and know what they like, the public does know what feels right and gives them good vibes.. Why otherwise do they flock to Beddington Park, rather than promenade along the section of Beddington Lane alongside the skip yards, sewage works and incinerator ? Only a mile away, if that as the drone flies. The difference must be Environment. Or go to cafes in Banstead High Street, but not Caterham on the Hill high street. My guess is that they feel better in one place, but less so in another, because of the environment. Buildings, landscape , accessibility and parking and also, very important, micro-climate–all part of the mix.

      If you take that as a guideline, it could give clues as to what a well-designed Croydon Town Centre could look and feel like.

      Interestingly, the Council has got it right, in my view, over the last 12 years or so, under both Conservatives and Labour, when it invested money in improving the streetscape of the local centres Lower Addiscombe, Purley (part) , West Croydon, South End (part) and several other areas. The trouble is, the investment has not reached other prominent areas like South End from Katherine Street to Coombe street, nor Brighton Road Purley, to name two places that need the improvement. Apologies to other areas I have not mentioned as I do not know them as well as those I have mentioned.

      The difference with the Whitgift centre redevelopment, apart from its size and single-aged design (late 1950’s) is that all the land is in private ownership, so the council can make suggestions, but not do the design itself. We rely on the developer–who ever they are, as they seem to morph, amoeba -like, over the years, while the site remains in semi-limbo.

      I really do not hope that Elon Musk developments comes to Croydon to imose its will on the town. Unless Elon chose some very good masterplanners, architects and landscape architects to come up with something that offered a diverse, modern, adaptable and beautiful place. And he came to live in a penthouse suite.

  14. Rod Davies says:

    Wonderful news but…. retail centres only work if people have money to spend.

    If we cast our minds back to the halcyon days of yore, Whitgift like other retail centres was sustained by young adults spending in the shops, and they tended to spend proportionally a lot and often. The reason being that they purchase clothes and entertainment when they are single or in the pre-family stage or once they start a family, and then they have a good 20 years of spending almost every penny clothing, feeding & educating their children.

    The most significant change for young people is the cost of housing, driven up by the acute lack of supply. If in the early 1970’s it was the pan-European norm that average housing cost 36% of the average man’s wage, this is no longer the case. It has more than doubled in cost in real terms, and now the young family needs 2 incomes where 50 years ago just 1 was needed.

    For those that have disposable income they tend to be older & established, their children are no longer dependent and have relatively low debt to income. While they may spend their disposable income, it tends to be on things such as holidays which benefit the holiday venue economy rather than the local economy.

    Due to Brexit, Covid and the Russia / Ukraine war, there is a global economic crisis bringing higher inflation that reduces spending power further, particularly among young adults who are impacted more by inflation as mortgage interest rates and rents escalate along with the cost of basics.

    The only way to change this is to take action to reduce the cost of living. That can be achieved through constructing so many homes that supply starts to exceed demand. But to achieve that the council , and the wider community, has to approve the construction of thousands of social housing units. However Mayor Perry appears to be opposed to that. So it remains to be seen whether Whitgift Centre can be revived in the way that many seem to imagine.

  15. Lewis White says:

    It will be interesting to see what Mayor Perry’s Planning and Design philosophy turns out to be.

    If he listens exclusively to the Nimby and NAAE Not anything anywhere ever brigade, it might result in no development at all, or, if he listens to the some local residents, it might well turn out to look like very Biggin Hill- lots of bungalows built close very together, higgledy piggledy on the Green Belt.

    I recall that in the not too distant past of the 70’s to 2000’s,some Surrey local authorities turned down almost everything. The developers went to appeal. If the Council lost, and the development went though, the councillors and the public could blame the Inspectors.

    I wonder if the Government got fed up, and charged the local councils for doing their planning via the Appeals process.

    One hopes that Mayor Perry has Planning advisors who do have a Planning and Design vision for the future that encompasses redeveloping where appropriate, to build a much better borough for all, younger, middle and older, not just those who can afford a nice home with off street parking, 3 or 4 bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms..

  16. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
    That witticism usually attributed to Albert Einstein, is eerily apt in Croydon. It started with a weird Heals at the back of what was Kennards, then Minerva and St Georges walk and then the Westfield debacle. All were preceded by a barrage of hyperbolic rhetoric and all, ultimately, ended up either as expensive, compulsory purchase fed fiascos or just disappeared because, Heals, was the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place. Madness!

  17. Lewis White says:

    The term –in the “dead centre” of town– is so true at the current time for Croydon,but was so untrue in the busy days of the 1960’s and 70’s, when central Croydon was as busy as it looks in old photos of the 20’s, and the 1860’s to 1900’s, of George Street and the High Street, crammed with men and women in hats, on omnibuses and in trams. It was also truly bustling, when the Whitgift was just opened. Crowds of shoppers everywhere. Standing room only in Surrey Street market. Crammed, shopping bag to shopping bag, shoulder to shoulder, Just like a pub at lunch time on Saturday.

    What was fueling all that activity, money-wise?. The British Empire, no doubt, with –for some–its riches, and the trickle down factor, to the masses, until WW1 stopped everything. The 1920’s again crowded the pavements of Croydon, when suburban expansion started to go into a higher gear, filling the fields between Croydon and London and around Croydon. All these new homes needing curtains and furniture. Hoovers! (my entrepreneurial Grandfather demonstrated and sold them door to door! ) Factories on Purley Way– the Airport– then more houses and more houses by the thousands in the 30’s and 40’s, and 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

    The result- lots of new people, and lots of homes to be filled with things.

    Arno’s mention of Kennard’s brings back vivid memories for me of the Kennard’s Arcade, which was a small boy’s dream with scenery-painted gateways like battlements,plus donkey rides and I think, a big pet shop down the bottom with large birds that talked–plus that omnipresent smell of millet and Sprett’s Ovals dog biscuits. Plus a mysterious stall with joss sticks and perfumes for every day of the week. Fascinating…. and the arcade was crowded with people.

    Bustling, but maybe I didn’t see the signs of future decline and closure.

    How can central Croydon get its mojo back?

    Will all those ultra-tall new residential tower blocks get filled with residents who spend their money in the town, with their presence resulting once more in busy streets and shops — or will they end up as slums in the sky populated by people impoverished by massive service charges as the cladding and lifts need replacing in 30 years or so?. It is deeply worrying.

    If -as many contributors to Inside Croydon have mentioned– the internet shopping boom is really here to stay, and results in a decline foot fall and spend in the real shops by about 30 % to 45%…….. the question is whether we need so much area devoted to shops.

    It remains to be seen whether the big developers will create really stimulating designs where people will want to live, raise families and get old– or whether Croydon becomes a land of young people without children.

    Maybe central Croydon will become popular as a place to live with people who seem to really be used to and presumably happy living all their livers in large blocks in towns, such seems the case with many people from South American communities, European, and some Asian communities.

    What ever the case, the sad fact is that so much of the middle of Croydon is just lacking in life, and strangely empty of people.

    Let’s hope that the redevelopment of the Whitgift , St George’s Walk and the areas up to E Croydon Station succeed in bringing the crowds–and the mojo back to the middle.

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