Westfield/Hammerson – Pain or Gain?

The decision on the CPO ‘lies in the idea of the public interest. One way to determine the public interest is to weigh the amount of pain against the amount of gain.’

So argues Susan Oliver in her final submission to the Whitgift Centre CPO Inquiry on Friday 13 March.

Major Burdens

In her first contribution at the Inquiry on 5 March, she  spoke about the burdens the project would have on the public realm.  She repeats  some of the major ones.

  • The project is in a large space in a major metropolitan area that gets significant footfall and traffic so it would disrupt thousands of people on a daily basis
  • It would bear on the ability for people to enjoy themselves in Central Croydon for 3-4 years
  • It would bear negative consequences for trade
  • It tears down a facility that is still very much in use and that I think is still held in high regard
  • It bears down on Croydon residents who have jobs and small business owners who have businesses in the Whitgift Centre
  • Croydon is becoming filled with large construction sites and there’s only so much the public can take

What is the gain of the new mall?

‘So the pain would be very great. Sometimes pain is okay if the gain were significant so let’s look at that.   Obviously what’s on offer is a new mall.’   But there are two issues

  • ‘The viability of a high-end shopping strategy is questionable for many reasons. One is that there isn’t enough wealth in the borough to support the scheme. We’re unsure if people in neighbouring boroughs would support it.  It only takes a 20-minute train ride to go to other high-end experiences like Oxford Street. Why should the public be asked to shoulder so much pain for what is basically a risky business proposal?   It doesn’t make sense for us.’
  • The ability of residents to trade in the new mall has not been secured. Our politicians should have obtained iron-clad guarantees from the developers on this issue. .. (Why) should the Croydon public go through so much and then not be able to use the place to trade?  There should be a written agreement on the table for current business owners.  Other things they could have fought for are a number of low-rental units or a special section in the new mall for local businesses.  Since none of these agreements have been made, we have nothing to hold them to.   So local people are essentially losing a place to trade since most of them would not be able to afford the high rents in the new mall.  This would be a major loss for Croydon and cannot be in the public interest.’

Regeneration Vision

‘One thing that’s been swirling around this project is the idea of regeneration, a kind of a grand vision that this proposal will save Croydon.  Hand-in-hand with this is the notion that Croydon has become so desperate that we have no choice but to accept the deal.

A lot of money is made out of people’s desperation.  The most astute financiers make the most money when there is a stock market crash.  And I feel the same elements working here.

I do not think this project will save Croydon.

Westfield cannot replace what has been accomplished by the Whitgift Centre, which is to create a local economy.    The Centre has been like a loom on which part of the local economy has been woven.  There’s a lot of little threads we don’t see on the loom but those threads help feed a lot of families.  These threads would be cut by the demolition of the Centre and a part of the local economy would fall.‘

The value of the existing Centre

‘It’s easy to take the Centre for granted because it has served Croydon in a quiet, unassuming way for 50 years.   And a lot of work has been put into the Centre over those years by business owners, employees, consumers, management, the Council and so on.  Probably a million people have helped to develop the Centre into what it is now – it would be unconscionable to throw it all away.

It is true that Central Croydon looks tatty but bulldozing the Whitgift Centre is like charging and jailing the wrong suspect. The Centre is the least of our problems. It is being picked on because the people who will hurt the most have no voice and by that I mean the general public. ‘

Job Creation Argument Irrelevant

‘This is not about job creation either.  There are a number of other companies the town could lure into town to bring jobs here.  The excuse that this project would produce jobs is largely irrelevant.’

Why did this project get so much backing?

‘It hides the real problem, which is political.’

‘I’ve already described that this deal has suffered from a lack of political leadership.  Our politicians should have been at the forefront of these negotiations, protecting the interests of small business owners and getting good deals for them.  For those of us who live in Croydon, such lax behaviour is not new, and is indicative of the real problem.

I feel the real purpose of this scheme is to mop up after a dysfunctional democracy.  Our local government is not functioning properly to ensure that the town centre works and looks good.   And that is a much harder problem to solve because it has major political implications.  So no one wants to tackle it.  It’s much easier to bring in a large project adorned with bells and whistles.

One piece of that dysfunction was brought to our attention by Jo Negrini who mentioned in her testimony that there has been no significant investment in the Whitgift Centre in 20 years.  The public deserve to know why.

Partially because, if this deal went through, it is very likely we would be in the same place 30 to 40 years from now.  Given weak direction from Croydon Councillors, it may well happen again.‘

The lack of responsible government

‘A CPO cannot replace a responsible governing body and a leader that can be voted out when they’re not doing their job.  I’ve always wondered why a town this size – which is a city in all ways but name – has no distinguishable leader like a mayor or even a town manager.  Or, for those who don’t like the idea of a mayor, a small group of elected officials that make up a Central Croydon Town Council would be sufficient.  I’m not fussy.

An election focusing on the town centre would help to bring problems into focus and bring about greater transparency.  It is our economic engine after all – it deserves such attention – and I believe that it is a key element to any regeneration plan and more important than any building.‘

The privileged position of Whitgift Foundation

‘One organisation that seems to be weathering all of Croydon’s storms is the Whitgift Foundation.  Lo and behold it is part of the Croydon Partnership and is gaining a lot of land  out of this deal.   Why?

Before I came to Croydon I lived in Hyde Park, in South Chicago.  You might as well not use the term “Hyde Park”.  You might as well call the town “The University of Chicago” because the University has bought up a lot of the real estate and basically decides what happens in the town.

Some charities are using their advantages to gain power.   Here, it takes on a British appearance but it’s the same game.

One local politician has repeatedly tried to justify this project by arguing that it would support the charitable objectives of the Whitgift Foundation.  There are a number of charitable organisations in Croydon all with charitable objectives – why does this one enjoy such a favourable status?

In this proposal, the Whitgift Foundation would obtain a monopoly over a large piece of land in the middle of Croydon.   I’m concerned about that because the Foundation already has considerable land-holdings and political influence in the borough.  Brazenly, it has 5 of our politicians on its board.  In addition, two of the MP candidates currently running in the borough …. have mothers who are on the Foundation’s Board of Governors.’

Major Hidden Cost to the Plan: Erosion of our Democracy

‘It’s beginning to look like you need to be connected with the Foundation in order to be a political player and this proposal would only strengthen that trend.

Furthermore, I am concerned about the erosion of democratic principles in the town because we already see some very undemocratic activity going on. Three examples are:

  1. The finances of … Bernard Weatherill House …. and the complex CCURV agreement made with John Laing are still unknown to the public.
  2. Julie Belvir, Director of Democratic and Legal Services for Croydon Council, requested that councillors refrain from commenting on the CPO ahead of this enquiry. That’s 70 councillors all agreeing to say nothing, and sadly none of them even complained about this request.
  3. The Croydon Advertiser recently discovered a secret governing organisation called the Croydon Strategic Metropolitan Board, containing business leaders and high-level politicians. The public was not informed about the board; Gareth Davies, reporter for the newspaper, broke the story.  Not only do I worry about the nature of this Board, it’s a bad sign when we have to learn what our local government is doing from a reporter.’

Given these examples, I worry that the public would be kept in the dark about important decisions and/or mistakes made about the project and the costs incurred by it.   I also worry about our politicians’ ability to protect the public purse against the demands of an international property developer.’

Conclusion 

‘… I can understand the allure of a new mall.  I appreciate Ms Negrini’s sincerity about Westfield’s commitment to employment and other things.  And I have tried to be reasonable in the name of cooperation.   But the fact is, the Croydon Partnership has not fully entered into the spirit of the public interest.  There have not been enough compromises and gestures put forward to convince me they are in it for the public benefit.  The scrapping of the three-phase development plan was significant.

But the biggest factor by far is that it is natural for Croydon to be protective of the Whitgift Centre.

  • It contributes greatly to our local economy.
  • It allows local people establish businesses.
  • It is part of Croydon’s identity and the public would suffer in many ways if it was shut down.’
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About seancreighton1947

Since moving to Norbury in July 2011 I have been active on local economy issues with Croydon TUC and Croydon Assembly, and am a member of the latter's Environment Forum. I am a member of the 5 Norbury Residents Associations Joint Planning Committee, and a Governor of Norbury Manor Primary School. I write for Croydon Citizen at http://thecroydoncitizen.com. I co-ordinate the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks and advise the North East People's History Project.. I give history talks and lead history walks. I retired in 2012 having worked in the community/voluntary sector and on heritage projects. My history interests include labour movement, mutuality, Black British, slavery & abolition, Edwardian roller skating and the social and political use of music and song. I have a particular interest in the histories of Battersea and Wandsworth, Croydon and Lambeth. I have a publishing imprint History & Social Action Publications.
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3 Responses to Westfield/Hammerson – Pain or Gain?

  1. baw30s says:

    This is a very thoughtful article which raises many relevant concerns.

    Having seen what Westfields look like in Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush, I for one do not find the prospect of having one in Croydon appealing, even if the Croydon plans do appear a little less monolithic.

    I also wonder how an adequate rate of return can be obtained on the £1bn being spent, which equates to £3,000 for every man, woman and child in Croydon. The typical rate of return expected on commercial property is 10% per annum, so presumably Westfield expect to charge around £100 million pa in rent to their tenants. Shops in turn expect that rent will not exceed 10% of gross sales, so if they were paying all the rent (I understand there will also be residential tenants) they would require sales of £1bn per year to cover it, which is in the region of £10,000 for every employed person in the borough! I don’t think I’ll be spending that much there…

    When developers are too flush with funds, they do make mistakes. Look up “Ciudad Real Central Airport” on Wikipedia. It cost a similar sum to the Whitgift Centre redevelopment to construct, and was the first international private airport in Spain. It closed in April 2012 after just three years in operation when its management company went into receivership.

    It seems to me that Croydon shoppers might be better off with the existing perfectly adequate shopping centre which without the burden of enormous debt should be able to charge its tenants a reasonable rent and consequently its users reasonable prices.

  2. Pingback: Whitgift Centre News at 21 March | History & Social Action News and Events

  3. I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative
    and engaging, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail
    on the head. The issue is something that not enough people
    are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I came
    across this during my search for something relating to this.

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