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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- You can listen to the Sky News business podcast with Ian King by clicking here – the Croydon section begins just before 8:00 in.
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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