Last night, Croydon Council’s Strategic Planning Committee considered Westfield and Hammerson’s planning application to redevelop the Whitgift Centre.
I attended the meeting to speak in favour of the application because I believe it provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn around Croydon’s fortunes.
First, it will make Croydon one of the top retail destinations in the country, as it was when I was growing up. Westfield and Hammerson will bring the top brands we currently lack to the town centre and they will have control of the town’s multi-storey car parks and hence be able to undo the damage caused by the disastrous decision of the last Labour Council to hand them over to NCP. They are predicting an extra 8 million visitors a year to the town centre - that’s an increase of 42 per cent.
Second, it will create thousands of jobs (3,320 full time equivalent jobs as a direct result of the scheme and another 330 indirectly in supply chains plus 4,300 person years of construction employment). We need to ensure that as many of those jobs as possible go to local people. We want this development to benefit people in New Addington, in South Norwood, in Thornton Heath, not just the town centre. Westfield and Hammerson will be setting up a Job Brokerage & Skills Training Centre and working closely with the Council and the Job Centre Plus to make that happen.
Third, it will lead to the construction of between 400 and 600 new homes. Not only will this help to address the huge demand for housing in our town, but having people living in the town centre will change it for the better - rather than just being somewhere young people go to drink in the evenings, it will once again be a place where people live.
Fourth, it will make it much easier to get around the town centre on foot. Unlike the current Whitgift Centre, which is impassable at night, there will be pedestrian routes running through the scheme, giving it a much more town centre feel and ensuring that there are good connections with other parts of the town centre that we want to see regenerated like London Road and Surrey Street.
Finally - and most importantly - it will change the reputation of Croydon, catalysing further investment by other developers. It is an historic opportunity to reverse Croydon’s relative decline.
I was therefore delighted that the scheme was unanimously approved.
Of course, attracting millions more visitors to the town centre - great news though that is - is not without its problems. Westfield and Hammerson will be contributing £15 million towards enhancements to the tram network, £10 million towards enhancements to the bus network and significant sums to improve the local road network. In addition, Transport for London and Croydon Council are investing to improve the A23 corridor.
So what next?
Well first the scheme goes to Boris and then to the Government.
Assuming Boris approves it and the Government sees no reason to intervene, Westfield and Hammerson then need to acquire all of the site before they can start work. They are already well on the way. They have signed an agreement with the Whitgift Foundation (of whom I am a governor, though I have taken no part in their discussions with Westfield and Hammerson in order that I can speak freely on behalf of my constituents), who own the freehold of most of the site. They have bought the lease from Royal London Asset Management and they own the Centrale shopping centre on the other side of North End. They still need to acquire the sub-lease to the Whitgift Centre, which used to be owned by Anglo Irish Bank but is now in the hands of the Irish Government following the banking crisis; and the freehold to part of the Allders building, which is owned by Minerva. If they can’t acquire these interests on the open market, then they make ask the Council to use its powers to issue a Compulsory Purchase Order.
Then they have to build the scheme. They say they hope to open in early 2018.
So there is still a long way to go and we need to support the businesses we do have during the inevitable disruption while the scheme is built. But last night’s decision was a huge step in the right direction and the culmination of a lot of detailed work that’s been going on behind the scenes over the last 10 months, in which I’ve been heavily involved. The Conservative administration at the Town Hall, in particular, deserve a huge amount of credit.
When Westfield and Hammerson announced their intention to invest in Croydon back in January, a lot of people were sceptical. I don’t blame them - I’ve lost count of the number of plans for the town centre I’ve seen announced only for nothing then to happen during my time in Croydon politics. But these are two of the leading retail developers in the country and the granting of planning permission is further evidence that this time it’s for real.
UPDATE: 27th November 2013
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has swiftly approved Westfield and Hammerson’s £1 billion scheme to regenerate Croydon town centre, the clearest evidence yet that there is unanimous political support for construction to commence as fast as possible.
As I mentioned earlier this week, Croydon Council’s Planning Committee granted outline planning permission on Monday. Now that the Mayor has given his approval, the application will be submitted to Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I will be writing to him asking him not to call the application in given it is broadly consistent with national planning policy, the London Plan and the Croydon Plan.
I’ll update you as soon as I have more news to report but for now will leave you with a few words from Boris:
“This development will usher in a new era of prosperity for Croydon and help return it to its former glory”.
Amen to that.