What will the ‘new’ Westfield deal really mean for Croydon?

STEVEN DOWNES outlines some of the likely consequences of this week’s announcement that Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield have bought out their former partners Hammerson for the redevelopment of the town centre

Flats, loads of them: Westfield’s plans elsewhere in London, as well as previously in Croydon, see a significant shift towards more residential development

In all the flurry of civic excitement over the announcement that Westfield’s parent company had bought out Hammerson’s half-share of the Croydon Partnership, the long-delayed £1.4billion scheme to redevelop the town centre, one thing was notably missing: any real detail.

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, the Paris-based multi-national that now controls a large slab of real estate in this part of south London, has only suggested that it is undertaking some “master planning” for the area, which includes the Whitgift Centre and Centrale shopping mall. No timelines have been offered, no deadlines fixed, no targets set.

In that deliberately created information vacuum, it is impossible to know with any certainty what shape URW’s plans might take. They probably don’t know, yet, themselves.

But based on their previous proposals, the company’s conduct and developments elsewhere, and the laws and requirements of the planning process, it is possible to outline some of the more likely outcomes.

It won’t be quick

After 10 years of delay and inaction caused by the abortive Croydon Partnership, together with the impact of the 25-year downturn in high street retail sector, Brexit and then the pandemic, the state of Croydon town centre is parlous.

Wastefield: Bradford’s experience of waiting for Westfield was painful. But Croydon’s scheme now looks as if it will take longer to complete

There’s understandable desire from the public and politicians alike for rapid action. This week, one of the MPs for the area, Sarah Jones, expressed her hope that “we will see movement on site in 2024”.

That, though, even the greatest optimists think is unlikely to be achieved.

Westfield are working on a master plan for the area – at least the third in the last 10 years. That will need to be presented to the local council, as the planning authority, and probably require to be run past the Mayor of London, too. They might even choose to do a spot of public consultation, for what that’s ever worth.

Best guess of when the master plan will see the light of day is October or November 2023.

Then there comes the planning process, with the third planning application to come forward. We’ll be well into 2024 by then.

Even if all that runs tickety-boo – and Croydon’s planners have a well-deserved reputation for being under-staffed, and never the quickest at turning round such schemes quickly – it could be late 2025 before any demolition or construction work ever begins. This on a project that we were firmly promised would be completed by 2017…

There’s a need for a brand new CPO – Compulsory Purchase Order – for the area. The previous one was signed off by whoever was Secretary of State for whatever the Department for Levelling Up was called at the time, in September 2015. These things have a limited shelf life of three years – it is five years since that original CPO expired (as Negrini and Newman and their numpties all well knew).

The need for a new CPO might also bring with it a Planning Inspectorate inquiry, the hearings for which can take at least one month, with the inspector taking a month or two more to compose their report.

All the while, the clock is ticking, and Croydon’s cash-strapped council is incurring administrative and staffing costs for a second, or third, time around.

The realities mean that the first and only term in office of Mr 15per cent, Jason Perry, will have finished before work on any new Westfield scheme gets underway.

Flats, flats and more flats

What can we expect from the plans when they eventually emerge? Flats. Loads of flats.

Almost there: Ruskin Square, next to East Croydon Station, with its mix of offices, some residential and Boozepark, has been almost 20 years in the making

Westfield’s first proposals were a mixed development of a massive, Stratford-like supermall, with around 600 “luxury apartments” dotted around them, mostly in tower blocks along the Wellesley Road.

But as the plight of the retail sector has steadily worsened, Westfield’s developments have increasingly leaned on residential projects as much as their retail palaces.

Westfield’s second plan, the one that was signed off in Westminster eight years ago, almost doubled the number of flats proposed, to nearly 1,000. There was a sense that the developers weren’t best pleased when the then new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, insisted that one-third of the flats would need to be “affordable”. It was around that time that things for Westfield’s Croydon scheme slowed to a halt.

Chances are, third time around,  the developers will want to cash in by building even more flats.

The clue to this was in URW’s announcement this week. “This milestone in the development of Croydon further demonstrates the investment that URW is making… blah de blah…”. Highlighting White City and Stratford as “Europe’s two largest shopping destinations”, URW reminded us that they are now working on a 1,200 build-to-rent residential scheme called Coppermaker Square at Stratford and a further 1,700 homes planned for White City.

The shape of things to come?: Coppermaker Square at Stratford is URW’s latest 1,200-flat resi development

But Westfield’s delays might have seen them miss the residential development boat in Croydon.

When the “growth zone” was first devised, Westfield were at the front of the queue for all schemes. Now, they are the tail-end Charlies, following on after Greystar’s four steepling tower blocks at East Croydon, with another couple of towers about to go for planning permission on Lansdowne Road.

The Queen’s Gardens developments, with more than 500 flats, are now completed, while it is several years since Stanhope and Schroders delivered their 330 homes at Ruskin Square.

Even the council’s own cursed house-building firm, Brick by Brick, managed to get in on the act, with 157 flats overlooking the Flyover in Kindred House, all completed.

And while there remains massive demand for new homes, there is a limited market for one-bed flats that cost close to £400,000. It’s unlikely that Westfield will be building much social housing for rent.

The Paris thing

The fair dinkum Aussies who founded Westfield sold out to Unibail-Rodamco in 2017. Since when, the Parisians have taken a slightly snooty view of the possibilities in Croydon. Brexit certainly has not helped. At one point, URW removed Croydon from its “development pipeline” altogether.

French leave: Jean-Marie Tritant, of URW, probably has more say over the future of Croydon than any of the local politicians

Jean-Marie Tritant is URW’s CEO and, as such, he probably holds more influence over the future of Croydon town centre than any of the area’s elected politicians.

This week he said, “Urban regeneration projects are at the heart of URW’s purpose to create sustainable places that reinvent being together, and we are very excited about what can be achieved in Croydon.

“With our full ownership of the property, it allows URW to work in partnership with the Mayor of Croydon, the Greater London Authority and other vital local stakeholders on a vision and options that support the wider transformation of the area.”

“Very excited”. Hmmm.

Compare that to what Tritant told the Sunday Times in a lengthy interview last year, in which he outlined the abandonment of the mega-mall model upon which Westfield had built their reputation, and built their malls at Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush.

The newspaper assessed that whatever emerges in Croydon is likely to more closely resemble Les Ateliers Gaîté than Westfield London.

Les Ateliers Gaîté is the recently completed development in Montparnasse, Paris. It includes a 32-storey hotel, 60 shops, co-working offices and 62 modular flats. Built for £430million, it is modelled on the idea of the “15-minute city”, with people living on and around the mixed-use site.

According to the Sunday Times, “The scheme is unrecognisable from the two giant shopping centres that URW owns in London.”

And Tritant said, “If we were to redo Westfield London or Westfield Stratford today, we would integrate mixed uses even more. More of our new projects will be delivered with this vision.”

What role has Mayor Perry had in this latest deal?

What role has Croydon’s Tory Mayor, Jason Perry, had in this latest deal? Absolutely none.

It was a commercial transaction between two large private businesses – URW and Hammerson.

URW has been biding its time, waiting for distressed Hammerson’s asking price to drop low enough to make the numbers work for them. “Tens of millions” has been the sale price reported for half of what was supposed to be a £1.4billion scheme.

Perry, together with the Whitgift Foundation, have been reduced to the role of spectators while big business carves up the town centre. The Foundation, which owned the freehold of the Whitgift Centre, only got around to issuing its version of the URW press statement a day after the announcement.

Future proofed: Les Ateliers Gaîté in Paris is a much smaller scale shopping centre and mixed-use development by URW

For his part, Perry claimed, “I have been working closely with businesses and partners to bring forward the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and wider regeneration of the town centre.” There’s a lot of heavy lifting being done by the use of the word “working” there.

From his sidelined position, Perry welcomed the agreement as, “an important step in progressing this”. No shit, Sherlock.

This really was a statement of someone outside looking in. “We look forward to working with them as they develop a new masterplan in 2023, which will inform a new, revised application for the town centre.” There was a sense of “if they let us” being added to that statement.

So marginal is the Mayor’s and the council’s role in what has occurred over the past three years that the best Perry had to offer was to say he would reconvene a mothballed advisory committee.

Infrastructure infra-dig

Town Hall figures and residents will be looking closely at what URW include in their Croydon proposals. It’s likely to involve a hotel of some kind (that was always on the cards – and was part of the reason that Tony Newman and his numpties thought they could spin a property deal out of turning the Croydon Park Hotel into flats), and some retail and leisure outlets – bars, cafés and restaurants.

Up the junction: infrastructure money from the new Westfield should not be squandered on diverting trams from the centre’s car parks

Even though part of the site – Grants, next to Centrale – already includes a multiplex cinema, previous plans had another multiplex in the mix.

If this is repeated, it will represent very dull, unimaginative thinking on behalf of the developers, and signify the absolute lack of real influence held by Mayor Perry.

It’s getting on for 60 years since Croydon town centre lost its swimming baths on Scarbrook Road, demolished to make way for the brash, new-look Croydon, with the promise that a new pool and leisure centre would be built at some point…

Jason Perry’s own broken promise to re-open the Purley Pool is now widely seen for what it was. And while a new town centre pool would not address the lack of facilities in the south of the borough, it would at least see some public infrastructure provided, as demanded by the residents of all the new flats.

Previously, Westfield wanted to provide £24million in infrastructure levy monies simply to create a new loop of track for the town centre trams, so that they wouldn’t delay cars from driving into their shopping centre.

Some cash towards the costs of new trams for the network might be welcome, but in any development deal with the public sector, the GLA, TfL and Croydon Town Hall will need to demand a bigger contribution from URW, and have a plan to use that money much more wisely.

Retail study centre

What might appear perverse to any reasonable observer, after a quarter of a century of the terminal decline of the retail sector, and it being a primary cause of the delay and scaling-down of the plans for Westfield Croydon, are reports of some kind of retail college being included in the proposals being brought forward.

Educational expansion: bringing in university students to a town centre is hardly original thinking

Property Week yesterday named the company that has been hired to carry out the master planning – FreeState.

The company has advised Transport for London, and helped on the design of Melbourne Airport. “For over 20 years, we have worked with some of the world’s greatest brand builders, city-makers, and place activators on every aspect of the strategy, design and activation stage of their projects,” they say.

“We are nimble, knowledgeable, and both strategic and practical.” Which is nice.

FreeState’s “Big Idea” is to get a start-up company, New Working Class, a three-person firm, “to create an education-based anchor for the Whitgift Centre, featuring a high street campus with retail and leisure uses run by students on the ground floor with lecture/classroom space above”.

This is an idea that may have been pinched from Jo Negrini’s “Plan B” for the town centre, which saw her bring the country’s 116th-rated university (according to the 2023  Complete University Guide) to set up a campus in a long-abandoned listed building close to the Town Hall.

All a long way from the halcyon days of our council as cheerleaders for Westfield a decade ago, when we were promised 3,000, then 4,000 and eventually 5,000 new jobs in a super-sized shopping mall that never got built.

Read more: Westfield seals deal to buy Hammerson out of town centre
Read more: Perry blasted after trying to take credit for Westfield’s new deal
Read more: Crisis for Croydon as Westfield ‘reviews’ its £1.4bn scheme
Read more: Westfield scale down plans, leaving Croydon a ‘dead duckling’

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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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6 Responses to What will the ‘new’ Westfield deal really mean for Croydon?

  1. Croydon- London Borough of Vultures

  2. John Chambers says:

    Steven – you are such a negative, dispiriting fellow! You can never see the positive side of ANYTHING! You have never to my knowledge written a positive, encouraging word about the Mayor, who was elected by the people of Croydon after a referendum. The Westfield deal will be the salvation of Croydon, and they are successful business people who have a vision which they will no doubt articulate in good time. Please be patient.

    • “The Westfield deal will be the salvation of Croydon”.

      After more than a decade.

      Oh yeah. “Negative”.

      Better than gullible. Or worse.

    • Anthony Miller says:

      Gavin Barwell said that a decade ago.
      The scheme never happens but watch the politicians try to sew the rotting corpse back together and heal it with electricity because they’ve no better idea.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Sorry John but Jason Perry got in due to the rank stupidity of Labour kicking out Andrew Pelling and thereby splitting a vote largely in favour of Val Shawcross.

      Jason Perry has the ignomy of actually not doing anythng beneficial of note for Croydon generally and quite a few things of detriment, but being positive there is time for that to change.

      Westfield though missed the boat by a decade in Croydon. URW I think can now get something done which could be of benefit. It can build on its modular concept and incorporate some facets already being worked up in Croydon.

  3. This whole process has obviously created a vacuum of uncertainty in the heart of Croydon and all the problems that follow from that. But as an ambition, Les Ateliers Gaieté and the 15 minute city sound far better in terms of creating a sustainable community in the centre of Croydon rather another gleaming temple to retail.

    Imagine if everything had gone to plan in 2017. How damaging would it have been to have been lumbered with those original plans by 2023 with the triple whammy of inevitable change from online shopping and remote work, of self defeating choices of Brexit and Trussonomics, and impossible to avoid repercussions of pestilence and war? Nobody, least of all Inside Croydon, would treat the original plans with anything less than contempt if they were tabled today…which maybe even suggests we’ve dodged a bullet – what does the alternate reality where this was built but everything else still happened look like? I’m not sure it’s guaranteed to be generating positive column inches on here. So something with less hubris about job-creation and more focus on central Croydon being a place where people live, work and play sounds preferable to me.

    If URW have been able to get a good deal in taking sole control then that’s good for them but more than that it’s got to be good for the prospects of this getting out of its limbo. And if URW have given some serious pause to rethink what it is to be a massive landowner historically focused on retail in light of everything that has happened in this last decade then you never know, they and Croydon might even enjoy some longer term benefits than might otherwise have been the case.

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