CROYDON IN CRISIS: There’s not much that has happened in Croydon in the last dozen years or so that cannot be traced back, in some respect, to the £1billion-plus non-development of the Whitgift Centre. And as the accounts of landowners the Whitgift Foundation reveal, that is certainly the case for the closure of the town centre’s girls’ school. By STEVEN DOWNES
In all the years since 1596, when Queen Elizabeth’s favourite archbishop laid the foundation stone for his hospital and then for a school at the centre of Croydon, there can surely have been few worse days for what was to become the Whitgift Foundation than Thursday September 21, 2023.
For while the Foundation was yesterday preparing to issue a letter to parents and guardians of pupils at one of its schools to advise them of its closure, up at the Appeal Court in central London, three of the country’s most senior judges were handing down a four-year jail sentence to a former teacher at another of the Foundation’s schools after he had been found guilty of child abuse from the 1980s.
The reputational damage from that scandal could last for years to come.
The damage done to the reputation of the Whitgift Foundation charity because of its decision to close Old Palace girls’ school, though, could last even longer.
There is no doubt that the closure of Old Palace is a direct consequence of the Foundation’s £1billion gamble to create a new palace, to retailing, which after nearly 12 years is no closer to being started than when the organisation first revealed their choice of development partners to be Westfield.
And who says that the failed Whitgift Centre redevelopment is the cause of the school’s problems? The Whitgift Foundation does…
When Jane Burton was appointed headteacher at Old Palace in 2019, succeeding Carol Jewell, the Foundation linked the school’s fortunes to the town centre redevelopment. “We believe that Mrs Burton has the expertise, passion and commitment to build on the outstanding work of Mrs Jewell and continue the school’s journey as a leader in modern girls’ education,” they said.
“With Croydon set for imminent redevelopment and regeneration, this is an immensely exciting time in the history and future of the school.”
Note that: “imminent”. In 2019…
According to the letter sent to parents yesterday, “The school has been struggling financially for many years, and the Foundation has supported the school from its general reserves in the expectation that the financial situation would improve at some point.
“However, in recent years compounding factors such as the cost-of-living crisis, increased costs, the growth in expense for necessary capital investment projects as well as anticipated demographic changes have made the sustainability of the school beyond the short-term impossible.”
Let us not deceive ourselves here, though, to think that we are dealing with a cash-strapped charity coping with the after-shocks of the covid pandemic. The Whitgift Foundation may be registered as a charity, for all the generous tax breaks as it runs three private schools where pupils’ annual fees can top £43,000.
But in reality it is, and has been for several decades, a mid-sized landlord and the borough’s biggest land-owner. The money the Foundation makes from its property portfolio goes towards subsidising its schools, paying bursaries for at least 500 of its pupils, and running its care homes and almshouses, one of which uses the site of the original Whitgift hospital, at the fulcrum of Croydon town centre where the tram rattles down George Street and across the High Street.
And there behind the almshouses stands the long-empty Allders department store building and beyond it, the neglected and run-down Whitgift Centre, once a reliable source of so much profit for the Foundation, but which lately has become a growing headache for the charity.
The quaintly named Court of Governors (rather than a more modern “board”), gives the Foundation such a Tudorbethan feel.
In some respects, it still operates in 16th Century manner, too.
Many of the governors are appointed by the current Archbishop of Canterbury himself. They usually include the Bishop of Croydon and the Vicar of Croydon, and often have a smattering of local politicos. Others arrive with skills from years in business and the community. The chair for the last eight years is a former UBS banker.
At the time when he was MP for Croydon Central, a key period in the appointment of Westfield to herald more than a decade of development blight, one of the members of the Court of Governors of the Whitgift Foundation was Gavin Barwell, who was also the chair of governors at his old school, Trinity.
Barwell saw no potential for conflict of interest in being involved with a £1billion land-grab by the body that funded his old school.
When iC ran a poll on this in 2013, two-thirds of respondents thought that Barwell was wrong and should resign from the Court.
Thing is, what Barwell and various other governors have presided over in the last decade is a steady decline in the fortune that they have been entrusted with.
Westfield first appeared on the scene in Croydon in 2012. By 2019, no development work had begun, the project was on its second round of planning permissions, the vast town centre site had all been CPO’d by a pliant council, but Westfield’s new French owners, Unibail-Rodamco had shelved all proposals.
Yet according to the Foundation’s chairman’s cheery report in March 2019, “As freeholder owner, we have been pivotal in shaping the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and we look to a bright future for Croydon in the coming years.” Which is nice.
Thing is, delve into the Foundation’s annual reports year-by-year, and the reality is of a multi-million-pound decline.
In their annual report to the end of August 2018, it says of the Foundation’s “Reserves Policy”: “The assets of the Foundation produce sufficient income to meet its commitments. It is not governors’ policy to build up additional reserves except where these are being put aside to finance future capital expenditure.”
When those accounts were filed, the Foundation’s “unrestricted funds” amounted to £249,751,477.
But by August 2020 (with the covid lockdown doing strange things to all organisations’ bottom lines), unrestricted funds were down by more than £29million, to £220,038,290.
Even by August 2022, the most up-to-date Foundation accounts available, their annual report was trotting out the same line: “The assets of the Foundation produce sufficient income to meet its commitments. It is not governors’ policy to build up additional reserves except where these are being put aside to finance future capital expenditure.”
Yet unrestricted funds now amounted to £208,241,313 – more than £40million down from what they had been just four years earlier. Even by the wretchedly low standards of Croydon in recent years, that’s quite a burn rate.
What was not mentioned in the annual report for 2022 was any suggestion that one of the Foundation’s three schools might be forced to close because it “has been struggling financially for many years”.
What was in the report, however, was the slightly delusional maintenance that all was going tickety-boo with the Westfield development. This in a report that came after the scheme’s 10th birthday… “Croydon Limited Partnership [meaning Westfield] is preparing a new scheme development reflecting change in market circumstances meaning a likely date for the start of the development is at least one year away.”
The Foundation’s income and expenditure figures over the past four years might also raise concerns, particularly among parents of children who might depend on the bursaries to see them through to their A levels.
In 2018, the Foundation reported that, “Our net income from investment properties was £62,752,681, a decrease of £61,347,815 on the previous year… The value of the property investment portfolio is £688,825,000 (previous year £692,220,000).”
In 2022, “The value of the property investment portfolio is £54,475,000 (previous year £65,176,010). This reduction is due to the decline in value of commercial properties including the Whitgift Shopping Centre.”
This is what Thatcher once described, when pursuing a policy of disinvestment in Liverpool, as “managed decline”.
The Whitgift Foundation uses three or four firms of investment managers, who handle a total value of more than £120million, generating between £2million and £3million income per year.
By last August, they had this note in the accounts: “The Foundation made a loss of £19.9million after accounting for unrealised losses of £8.4million.
“The school fee income remains the main source of income for the Foundation and increased to £50.7million (previous year £48.4million) net of scholarships and bursaries of £12.8million (previous year £12.4million).
“The expenditure incurred in operating the three schools increased by 8% from £62.1million to £67.2million during the year. This increase is a combination of pay awards, teaching, support and development costs.”
The dive in the value of the Foundation’s properties (such as the Whitgift Centre) has seen a sharp decline in the amount of rent they receive: “The investment property portfolio continues to be affected by the aftermath of the pandemic…”, nothing to do with their self-inflicted development blight, then? “…causing a depression in rental values [in] 2022 [to] £1.2million (2021: £5.6million).
“The investment property value reduced further to a value of £50.9million (previous year £52.6million).”
So while income has been increasing over the years, so has the Foundation’s out-goings, only much more steeply. Income from investments has reduced by about half.
Through all of this, the Whitgift Foundation’s property portfolio has been managed by local estate agents Stiles Harold Williams – prominent figures in organisations in the Croydon Establishment. Have SHW been running rings around the volunteers and amateurs who sit on the Court of Governors?
Barely a year before it was announced that the Whitgift Foundation would need to close one of its three schools because of financial issues, the charity’s auditors signed off on an annual report with a clean bill of health.
“Based on the work we have performed, we have not identified any material uncertainties relating to events or conditions that, individually or collectively, may cast significant doubt on the group’s ability to continue as a going concern for a period of at least 12 months from when the financial statements are authorised for issue.” That report was signed off nine months ago by auditors Haysmacintyre.
Each Foundation financial report includes a risk grid.
Top of that list in each of the last four years has been “Development of the Whitgift Shopping Centre not commencing”.
And each year, the mitigation offered is, “Regular meetings take place with the developer and other key parties to monitor progress.” So that’s alright, then.
Points three (“Incident with potential to damage reputation”), four (cash flow issues due to a reduction in income from property) and five (“Insufficient income to cover our operating costs”) might seem particularly pertinent given the developments of the past few days.
Martin Corney, the chief executive of the Whitgift Foundation, was invited by Inside Croydon to provide some kind of statement for publication, outlining whether the on-going non-development of the Whitgift Centre presents any kind of threat to the continued operation of Trinity and Whitgift schools or the care homes.
Corney did not respond.
- Click here for Inside Croydon’s unmatched, in-depth 13-year archive of the calamity surrounding the aborted redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre
Read more: Whitgift Foundation decides to close Old Palace School in 2025
Read more: Falling rolls and rising fees: how Old Palace got squeezed
Read more: Ghost haunts ancient palace where Good Queen Bess slept
- Inside Croydon – as seen on TV! – has been delivering local community news since 2010. 3million page views per year in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
- If you want real journalism, actually based in the borough, you should consider paying for it. Please sign up today. Click here for more details
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- We offer FREE ads to community groups when they have members who are paid subscribers to Inside Croydon
- Our comments section on every report provides all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine