Last night, Croydon Council's Cabinet unanimously voted to approve the use of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to clear the way for two of the country's leading retail developers, Westfield and Hammerson, to invest over £1 billion redeveloping the Whitgift Centre and the surrounding area.
The scheme already has planning consent. Croydon Council approved it last November, Boris Johnson signed it off a few weeks later and just before Christmas the Government confirmed that it was content. In January, the Section 106 agreement was signed, under which Westfield and Hammerson will contribute £29 million (£15 million to upgrade the tram network, £10 million to improve the bus network, £2.5 million for roads and highways improvements, £2.1 million for new street lighting and environmental improvements in North End, £1.6 million for sustainable transport and £150,000 for public art) in addition to the immediate works associated with the development.
The key barrier remaining before they start work is for them to acquire the parts of the site they don't yet control. To say the current ownership is complex would be an understatement. The core of the site is the Whitgift Centre. The freehold of the Centre is owned by the Whitgift Foundation, a charity of which I am a governor (though I have taken no part in their decision-making on this scheme so that I have no conflict of interest). They leased it to Royal London Asset Management, who in turn leased to a group of Irish investors. They borrowed against the asset from the then Anglo Irish Bank, which was subsequently nationalised in the aftermath of the banking crisis, so this interest now sits between the original investors and the Irish Government to deal. But the site extends beyond the Whitigift Centre, including for example the part of the Allders building that is not part of the Centre, which is owned by a company called Minerva, and a number of other buildings (you see what I mean by complicated?)
Westfield and Hammerson have signed an agreement with the Whitgift Foundation. They've bought the head lease off Royal London Asset Management and they are in negotiations with the other owners. But given the complexity of the land ownership, it is possible that they won't be able to reach agreement with all parties within an acceptable timeframe.
That's where a CPO comes in. Councils have the power to force people to sell their property at the market rate provided an inspector determines that the project concerned would bring sufficient social, economic and environmental benefits.
I strongly support the decision the Cabinet took last night. Not only will this scheme create thousands of jobs, provide hundreds of homes and transform the retail and leisure offer in the town centre, bringing top brands we currently lack here, it will also help to change Croydon's image encouraging others to invest. We can't afford to wait several years while the existing owners who have no alternative plan, try to pressure Westfield and Hammerson to pay an above-market price.
If you're interested, the detailed report that the Cabinet approved last night can be read here.