Regular readers of this blog will know that I believe the announcement by Westfield and Hammerson, two of the country’s top retail developers, that they will invest around £1.5 billion transforming the Whitgift Centre and then Centrale is the best news our town has had in my lifetime. Not only will it once again make Croydon one of the top retail destinations in the country, creating thousands of jobs in the process, it will also act as a catalyst to other investment in our town.
It’s therefore deeply depressing to find a Labour councillor looking this gift horse in the mouth.
While browsing Twitter yesterday, I found Cllr Tim Godfrey questioning Westfield and Hammerson’s commitment to Croydon. “When they [Westfield and Hammerson] buy some land then we can believe”, he said. So far, Westfield and Hammerson have spent nearly £200 million buying Centrale and a part-interest in the Whitgift Centre. You would have thought a local councillor might know that. Apparently not.
He went on to argue that, “a CPO [Compulsory Purchase Order] should be the last resort, not Plan A”. This really is an incredibly stupid thing to say.
A CPO allows local councils to buy land without the owner’s consent provided that land is necessary for a scheme which is in the public interest. Without the threat of one in this case, the Westfield/Hammerson investment in our town is very unlikely to happen anytime soon. As I mentioned above, Westfield and Hammerson own Centrale and a stake in the Whitgift Centre and they have an agreement with the Whitgift Foundation, which owns the freehold of the Whitgift Centre, but they need to acquire the former Anglo-Irish Bank interests in the Whitgift Centre which now sit with the Irish Government and Minerva’s interest in the Allders building. Without the threat of a CPO, both of these organisations could refuse to sell unless Westfield and Hammerson pay way above the odds, which they couldn’t do because it would make the scheme unviable. So if the Council refused to use its CPO powers for the time being as Tim suggests, it would basically be a recipe for nothing happening and our town continuing to decline.
This is such an important issue for the future of our town that we need to know as a matter of urgency whether Tim was expressing a personal opinion or whether he was speaking on behalf of the Labour Group as a whole. If the former, it’s bad enough; if the latter, it’s catastrophic because with elections coming up next May and the result in the balance it will lead Westfield and Hammerson to question whether they have the Council’s support.
I find it depressing beyond words that when things are finally beginning to look up for our town, a local councillor can say something so stupid.
PS I should make it clear that I am a Governor of the Whitgift Foundation, which clearly has an interest in this matter. However I haven’t taken part in any of its dealings with Westfield and Hammerson to ensure that I am free to represent the interests of my constituents – and in any case there is no fundamental conflict of interests: the Whitgift Foundation wants to see the Whitgift Centre restored to its former glory because it relies on income from the Centre to fund its charitable activities but in this case what’s good for the Foundation is good for the town too.
Good to see Cllr Tony Newman, the Leader of the Labour Group, disowning Cllr Godfrey’s comments in The Croydon Advertiser today. Nonetheless the fact that a senior Labour councillor can make such damaging remarks is another reason why it would be a mistake to put them back in charge of the Council next May.