We’ve a long way to go before Westfield arrives

By - Friday 24th November, 2017

We’ve been here before – and much still remains undecided

Westfield Stratford.
Photo by Berit Watkin, used under Creative Commons licence.

“Serious question. It seems like every two years there’s a ‘Westfield development was approved, yay!’ headline. What does this *actually* mean?” (A comment posted on Sarah Jones MP’s Facebook page recently.)

Should we be excited about the latest version of the proposed new glittering Whitgift Centre – the revised outline planning permission for which unanimous approval was given by the council’s planning committee on Tuesday 14th November?

The decision is being lauded by the council, the developers, the Whitgift Foundation, Sarah Jones and others. But we’ve been here before, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with no real progress made since. The start of the ever-more-expensive construction process is  moving into an uncertain, Brexit-influenced economic future. The continual repetition of promises has also become patronising.  That’s why “yeah, right” and a lot of eye rolling has been many people’s response.  As someone said to me: “the whole Westfield saga is now a textbook example of how to create cynicism.”

We face between four and eight years of a massive construction site

If the Croydon Partnership does not pull the plug, we face between four and eight years of a massive construction site, so the glittering centre may not open until at least 2023 – and maybe even later, with no heart left in the town centre in the meantime.

Of course, there is also continuing support for Croydon Westfield. Here are two enthusiastic comments on Sarah Jones’ Facebook page…

“The Whitgift Centre is demonstrably not fit for purpose. This investment will massively boost Croydon’s economy and allow the area to better address any residual issues. Failing to follow through with this will just mean perpetual blight for the whole borough, helping no-one.”

“About time! Croydon is a mess of nothingness at the moment. I’d rather Croydon was full of artisan shops myself – but you can’t force businesses to move here and if Westfield are prepared to take the plunge, so be it!”

Opinion is divided about the benefits…

Opinion is divided, however, about the benefits. Here are others’ views posted up:

“But there is already a massive shopping centre in Croydon! Why not spend that money on housing all the homeless in Croydon?”

“Thousands of minimum wage, unskilled jobs, with no security, and thousands of luxury homes for outsiders. Go Croydon.”

“Yay! Property prices will shoot up even more than they have already, so people like myself will find if even harder to stay in the area!”

Will the scheme enable the town centre to function on a human scale?

The biggest challenge with the scheme is whether it will enable the town centre to function on a human scale. The failure of ’60s developments to do this has always been a well-justified criticism. One of the key effects of the proposed scheme is that the positioning of the residential towers on Wellesley Road puts the residents’ footfall along what is essentially an urban and polluted motorway, to and from East and West Croydon bus and railway stations. Spreading the homes across the top of the centre, by contrast, would ensure that many residents will have access to their homes along North End, encouraging their pedestrian footfall in the midst of the retail and leisure complexes on both sides.

The lack of significant open and green space, and attractive leisure provision, will reduce the magnet effect of the new centre. The emphasis on providing for customers coming in from the south by car will make the town centre even more unfriendly for pedestrians, cyclists and those dependent on buses.

The developers cannot even make their minds up about whether there are to be four or five residential tower blocks, whether part of the residential provision will be student accommodation or a hotel, nor the final size of many of the new building features.

The key thing is to influence the thinking of the Croydon Partnership

There is a considerable amount of detail to be submitted, assessed and either revised or approved. The key thing now is to try and influence the thinking of the Croydon Partnership, and the council, about the details as they draw up the next round of applications. Waiting for the consultation on them leaves it too late to have a meaningful influence. I have therefore proposed to the council that they organise three-way meetings between it, the developer and those who are suggesting improvements.

Given their concern about the outline nature of the approval, the councillors set an important precedent in agreeing that the details must come to committee and not be agreed under officers’ delegated power. Westfield’s Steven Yewman told me after the meeting that he agreed with that decision. Even though this will be very late in the process, this does ensure that the public can have a last-minute attempt to influence the decisions of the committee through the consultation process.

Of the proposed approximate 1,000 homes on the new site,  20% will be ‘affordable’, at 66-80% of market rents. The councillors would have liked more, but even they were not given the figures of the ‘independent’ valuation on the economic viability of how much ‘affordable’ housing can be provided. There is to be an agreement that if the economics of the development change, there could be a later increase in the percentages.  However, reaching that decision was premature, because the developers are still in discussion with the Greater London Authority in relation to viability matters and the requirements of the mayor’s new adopted Affordable Housing and Viability Supplementary Planning Guidance.

The hotel option will reduce the actual number of residential units

A hotel cannot be considered as a residential development. So, if the developers choose the hotel option, that will reduce the actual number of residential units, which will in turn reduce the number of ‘affordable’ homes under the 20% formula.

One Tory councillor expressed disappointment that family sized homes (three bedrooms) would only be 5% of the residential units. This will mean that larger families will not be living in the new homes. Under planning rules, a two-bedroom home can have two children sharing a bedroom. While that may be acceptable when children are young, as they grow older, brothers and sisters need their own bedrooms, and separate spaces help children concentrate on their homework. The way the homes are managed will have to build in the possibility of moving families from two to three-bedroom accommodation, and from three back to two bedrooms when children leave home.

This two-part article will conclude next week.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Sean Creighton

    People are waking up to the Westfield/Hammerson Whitgift Centre risks and need for Plan B.


  • Robert G Williams

    There is a lot of discussion about the 20% of the homes which will be affordable. It is assumed here that they will be all for rent, but they can be affordable because they are available for purchase on a shared ownership scheme too.

    Also, what about the other 80%? How will they be purchased? Tower blocks elsewhere in the borough were built as council properties, were then tenanted , and individual properties bought under the right to buy. No owner occupier therefore ever had to buy off plan. Buying off plan is an entirely different transaction from buying an existing property or even buying a half built house, because there is at the time a contract is formed and your deposit money is handed over, there is already something of value in existence with those. When you buy a flat off plan, you are putting money up for a promise from a large company.

    The exception to the above rule which I know about is Altitude 25 which was almost complete when the banking crisis hit. It could not be occupied and work stopped. People who had signed a contract could not complete, and when work did start again, the value of the property which they were contracted to buy had fallen. That meant that they could not borrow the money to complete.

    In addition to Westfields 967 homes there are 794 in Lansdowne Road which will take 4 years to erect, 546 in Essex House opposite East Croydon station, and 128 in the Wandle Road scheme, a total of about 2,500. Lansdowne Road is 68 stories high. Can these units in practice be bought safely with building society finance? If you put a deposit up, you will be exposing yourself to the risk that a similar downturn occurs in that period. If you cannot buy them with building society finance, how do they help our housing shortage?