CROYDON IN CRISIS: Council concedes it is virtually powerless over land-owners and developers for long-delayed regeneration scheme, as influential scrutiny chair admits her committee is not convinced things will change. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
The company formed 10 years ago by Westfield and Hammerson, on a promise to redevelop Croydon town centre in a £1.4billion private business project that has never happened, now faces being hit with what is effectively a fine of more than £5million from the council to compensate for the development blight they have caused.
“Getting millions from developers who don’t develop is a no-brainer,” according to one senior council figure today. “The big question is how we don’t waste any more time.”
The “fine” is contained within something called the “Whitgift Indemnity and Land Transfer Agreement Remedy” or, in councilspeak, an ILTA, which is due to be discussed at a council cabinet meeting tomorrow night.
The council wants to activate a clause in a decade-old agreement “following the non-delivery of the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre within the specified timeframe”, according to official Town Hall papers.
The Croydon Limited Partnership – or CLP – is the joint venture that was formed in 2013 by Hammersons, the owners of Centrale, and Westfield when they were the developers preferred by the Whitgift Centre’s freeholders, the Whitgift Foundation. Between them, they have been sitting on outline planning permissions for their retail wet dream since February 2014.
Under the agreements with the developers, moves towards the Compulsory Purchase Order for most of the Whitgift Centre were instigated by the local authority in April 2014, at huge cost to the council in terms of officer time and legal bills. Millions for the purchase of property have been sitting in escrow accounts since 2018.
“Cabinet resolved to make a CPO to assemble the land needed to facilitate the comprehensive redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and surrounding land and gave authority to enter into contractual arrangements with CLP and related parties in relation to the scheme,” the report to tomorrow’s cabinet explains.
The cabinet member for planning, regeneration and transport in 2014, on what was then a Conservative-controlled council, was the owner of a South Croydon building supplies business… Croham councillor Jason Perry.
“Delegated authority was given to specified officers to take all necessary steps to promote the CPO, acquire land and rights by agreement or under the CPO and to complete the contractual arrangements with CLP,” tomorrow night’s report explains.
One of those contractual arrangements was a “retail remedy” under the Indemnity Land and Transfer Agreement, which agreed that the developers would be forced to pay £4million when given written notice before the deadline of February 21, 2023.
This sum was index-linked, which means that after 10 years even at the most modest inflation rate calculation, Croydon Partners could be looking at a bill of at least £5million if the arrangement is triggered by the Croydon’s executive Mayor… Jason Perry.
The council’s executive director of place, overseeing regeneration and planning in the borough back in 2014, was Jo Negrini, who had been appointed by the Conservatives ostensibly because of her “close” working relationship with Westfield on their Stratford shopping mall when she worked at Newham Council.
Such “closeness” might explain why it was agreed that any remedy payment should be triggered only after 10 years, and not sooner, when it has been clear for years what damage was already being inflicted on the town centre because of the developers’ inaction.
According to tomorrow night’s meeting report, the money is to be used “in order to seek improvements to North End to a cost of £4million indexed (from 5 February 2014) and a programme of asset management initiatives at the existing Whitgift Centre (the ‘Remedy Notice’)”.
The council papers to the cabinet meeting attempt to stress the powerlessness that the council, even as the local planning authority, has over land owners and developers in terms of forcing them to deliver on their CGI’ed promises.
“The council has limited levers to bring forward the redevelopment of the Whitgift site in terms of land ownership and funding and the ILTA was informed by this context,” the report states.
“However, the ILTA is still relevant and important, including in respect of the remedy provision.”
The council also has “further options”, but these are laid out in a secret “Part B” part of the report, withheld from the public.
These edited lowlights remind us that it is almost eight years now since the council staged its public inquiry into the CPO, and that Westfield and Hammerson – “Hammersfield” – were granted planning permission for a second time in April 2018, with a scheme that almost doubled the number of residential units to just over 900.
The fair dink ‘um Aussie outfit that was Westfield was taken over by Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco in June 2018.
Croydon Council has been little more than an emasculated by-stander over the last five years, with the likes of Negrini and the Labour council leader, Tony Newman, getting overly defensive and very touchy if anyone dared to question the lack of progress with the Whitgift Centre.
Meanwhile, the developers in their expensively tailored suits have twiddled their thumbs and pondered how to make their business make money while the high street retail sector continued to tank.
Less than three years after the Brexit referendum in Britain, and by February 2019, the new French management would soon be pulling the plug on any development in Croydon, announcing that it was under a “review”.
It still appeared to be something of a shock for the cheerleaders in the Town Hall when 12 months later URW confirmed that Croydon Westfield was, as one observer put it, “a dead duckling”.
And that was before the drastic impact of covid. Partners Hammerson have been particularly hard-hit.
Thus, Croydon Partners allowed their second planning permission to lapse in 2021, and as the report states, in February last year, the “12-month period for discussion between council and CLP regarding best option as to how to proceed (under clause 11.1 (a) ILTA) ends without agreement having been reached or CLP having given notice that it intends to dispose of its interests”.
The report itself is already out of date, as it refers to the levelling up fund bid which the council submitted last summer, and which was turned down last week. The loss of that £20million funding will doubtless diminish what might be achieved with whatever amount is ultimately squeezed out of the Croydon Partners.
The whole saga has been going on for so long that the Croydon political wheel has turned full circle, and now the same Tories who appointed Negrini and instigated the Whitgift Centre regeneration are being asked to trigger fines on their favoured developers.
The remedy action was discussed at last night’s scrutiny committee meeting. Rowenna Davis, the Labour councillor who chairs the committee, told Inside Croydon, “Getting millions back from developers who don’t develop is a no-brainer. The big question is how we don’t waste any more time.
“Our town centre desperately needs regeneration and residents have already waited too long.
“Scrutiny councillors pushed hard on this yesterday, but we aren’t convinced things will change,” the councillor for Waddon said.
“The council is limited by funding – especially when Croydon lost out on levelling up money.
“Meanwhile the Croydon Partnership needs to seriously step up. That starts with a proper planning application to regenerate our town centre as soon as possible.
“Scrutiny councillors will continue to push on this. Croydon deserves nothing less.”
The Croydon Partnership did not respond to Inside Croydon’s invitation to comment. The last news item on its website is dated June 2020…
Read more: Council concedes the end of its retail dream for town centre
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
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