The Public Gallery: The politics of Hammerfield

By - Thursday 28th November, 2013

Hammerfield decision sets out battle lines for 2014 election

On Monday night, the ‘Croydon Partnership’ of Hammerson and Westfield were formally granted council approval for their proposal to build a new shopping centre on the Whitgift Centre site. The outcome was never really in doubt. What was surprising, however, was the level of debate which arose around a decision which was seen as a fait accompli.

The debate was not about whether permission should be granted. As Public Galleries passim have explored, to be seen as ‘anti-Westfield’ has become an albatross the elected officials of Croydon do not wish to risk. The discussion was instead a lively and detailed exploration of the issues that will arise from the ‘Hammerfield’ development’s impending construction. I was resting my thumbs on Monday night, but thankfully both Gareth Davies of the Advertiser and Bieneosa Ebite of Croydon Radio provided detailed live tweets of the meeting.

Full details are available here. Of particular interest is the pedestrian route linking East and West Croydon. Running through the new shopping centre (rather than around it), it promises to transform the centre of town.

But what did the politicians have to say? The Strategic Planning Committee voted unanimously to approve the plan, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t take the opportunity to voice their concerns. Some did so out of civic duty, others, perhaps, out of a desire to be able to say ‘I told you so’ in the event of things going wrong.

Political observers who paid attention on Monday night could see that the battle lines and narratives for Election 2014 are taking shape. Based on the statements and questions from councillors on the night and elsewhere, it’s clear that the two messages from the Tories and Labour respectively are something like this:

Both messages play into the wider messages of the local parties. Labour are attacking the Tories for perceived secrecy and governing in the interests of the wealthy. Croydon Conservatives regularly accuse Labour of incompetence, and of bungling their own attempts to secure big regeneration projects for the town. The Tories will play up ‘their’ success in bringing a £1 billion investment to the borough, while implying (at the very least) that Labour cannot be trusted with power in the crucial coming years. Labour will in turn stress the importance of Croydon’s existing residents and retailers, as well as battling to ensure as much housing as possible is ‘affordable’. Labour and Tory members of the committee expressed concerns over the Westfield-Hammerson plan’s impact on the tram network and parking – I suspect both parties will try to claim they can assuage those fears.

But the 2014 election will be dominated, fairly or unfairly, by national political considerations, and this too was clear on Monday night: Labour councillor Alison Butler echoed Ed Miliband’s conference speech this year when she said ‘when the tide rises, we must make sure it’s not just the yachts that rise.’ This itself came off the back of another example of a local political consideration: Butler made clear that she was unhappy with the housing commitments made by Hammerfield. Only 15% of the 400-600 new homes will be ‘affordable housing’ – expect Labour to put public pressure on Hammerfield and other investors as part of their 2014 campaign.

Whether Hammerfield will a) achieve half of what it has promised and b) actually be a net positive for the town remains to be seen. But what the politicians will do with this particular ‘football’ is becoming clearer by the day. Even looking to the next General Election, if construction gets underway soon, Gavin Barwell’s now regular attempts to associate himself with the project may prove a difficult campaign technique for Labour’s Sarah Jones to overcome.

Who really deserves the political ‘credit’ for Hammerfield?

Gavin Barwell’s public meeting last week was broadly well-received. The presentation on Croydon’s regeneration was detailed, and speaking as someone who was in the audience, Barwell was comfortable and effective when answering questions. However, questions were raised by attendees after the meeting as to how far it was appropriate for Barwell, who declared an interest as a board member of the Whitgift Foundation, to be presenting the information. Barwell is Croydon Central’s MP, but is no longer a councillor and as such plays no direct role in the process. On Monday, too, Barwell spoke in favour of the application while council leader Mike Fisher remained comparatively quiet.

As explored above, both parties are sure to place Westfield at the centre of their campaigns in 2014, especially in the various marginal wards of Croydon Central. But who among the political classes really deserves the right to say ‘I/we made Hammerfield happen’? There are a few contenders.

  • Boris Johnson The ‘legendary’ Mayor of London (who formally approved the development on Wednesday) claimed some personal responsibility for bringing Hammerson and Westfield together when the joint venture was announced in January. Some Katharine Street sources question whether the two developers would have been prepared to join forces without his influence. Others are more sceptical.
  • Gavin Barwell The MP for Croydon Central has proved a regular face of the Hammerfield PR offensive. His involvement with the Whitgift Foundation means he excuses himself from board meetings where the Foundation discusses the development, but has not kept him from singing the project’s praises in public. Influential in local politics, CCHQ and, obviously, a major landowner involved with the plans, what he has done behind the scenes may be more than it appears. On the other hand, it’s clear that Barwell is looking to associate himself with the project wherever possible for electoral reasons. This blurs the issue as to how far he’s actually been involved.
  • Mike Fisher The Conservative leader of Croydon Council has had little to say on the matter publicly, beyond the usual ‘this is a great day for Croydon and mankind as a whole’ statements. He and his council have undoubtedly played some role in bringing the investment to the town, but, as above, the task of spreading the Good News seems to fall more often on Gavin Barwell.
  • None of the above Probably the most accurate answer. The development has come about largely through private interests realising that they would benefit more from Croydon’s regeneration and the post-riots funding if they came together. The politicians have played various roles in helping them get on their way – most obviously this Monday – but, overall, I’m not sure it’s fair to say any one group or individual can claim they were the mover and shaker in what will no doubt be called ‘Westfield Croydon’ (sorry, Hammerson – and credit to Gareth Davies of the Advertiser for that observation).
Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article, as usual, Tom. Mike Fisher had said that the rules did not allow him to speak, apparently. He had been interviewed by Bieneosa.

  • Sean Creighton

    Watching the Council meeting from the public gallery was depressing because of the inane party political point scoring, the level of barracking and the lack of impartiality and control of the proceedings by the Mayor. But then there is all to play for in that the Tories could lose control in May. Although I am opposed to the Westfield/Hammerson plan as an immoral and unnecessary waste of money, the decision has now been taken to go ahead. While both parties have been conned as to the benefits at least Labour is determined to ensure that are real benefits and have started learning from the experience with the Straford Westfields development. So while there is bi-partisan support for the scheme, there is a fundamental difference over the content of the negotiations over details that will continue. Two nights later as his biographer I attended the full meeting of Wandsworth Council to listen to the discussion of the bi-partisan resolution to commemorate the election of Jon Archer as black mayor of Battersea in November 1913. The atmosphere was much calmer, the party political points were made but without the barracking, and the Mayor was impartial and had an easy time. And there were other examples of bi-partisanship. The most interesting one is the agreement that more needs to be done to protect popular pubs from been taken over and closed. While there are differences of opinion over the details, the principle was unanimously approved. I am working on a piece to show its relevance to the continuing threat to pubs in Croydon. Why the difference between the two meetings? Well in Wandsworth there is no way the Tories are going to lose. Seats may change in Tooting where both parties are focussing their campaigning attentions, but not enough to enable Labour to win. So there is no adrenalin that fuels the proceedings in Croydon’s Council Chamber.