We’re all thinking it: will Westfield ever happen?

By - Thursday 27th April, 2017

Why Westfield’s delays are both foreseeable and risky despite what its proponents say

In recent months, one subject keeps rising, quite strangely, amongst the most read topics on the Citizen‘s website. It’s not Boxpark, Croydon Tech City or the sadly recently departed Croydon Radio. It has no reason to be there because we haven’t published, nor had call to publish, anything about it for six months. It is, of course, the Croydon Westfield: the much heralded (and little progressed) shopping centre project of the Croydon Partnership.

The discovery of this statistical anomaly was confirmation that many shared the same anxious thought as me: the silence on this project has been an awfully long one and silence on such things is rarely followed by good news. Quite simply – so that thought goes – could we see the end of the project altogether?

Dragging on

All the way through the project’s development, much has been made of how inevitable it all is. The “marriage” of Westfield and Hammerson over the use of the land was pitched as the magic bullet that would allow a legal quagmire to be overcome. Then the CPO (compulsory purchase order) was widely spoken of as the big move needed to get the project going – a “historic day” according to Tony Newman, which allowed them to “clear the last legal hurdle”. All the way through, the partnership’s team has said that all eyes would be on Croydon once the Westfield World Trade Center in New York was finished.

But that marriage is now more than four years in the past. The grant of the CPO was more than eighteen months ago and is now treated as a tool that the partnership wants to avoid using if it can. The Westfield World Trade Center has been open for more than half a year and while the prospect of a John Lewis is still dangled in front of Croydon’s middle class, a public statement by both companies confirming that it will happen is conspicuously absent. Worse, we seem this year to be taking a step backwards. What goes before the council in May is yet another planning application for a completely revised scheme to replace something which was secured in November 2013, now three and half years ago. More models, more CGI mockups, but no actual physical progress.

At the current rate of progress, it’ll take twelve years to get there

Meanwhile the Whitgift Centre itself has the distinct feeling of a dying mall that was supposed to be put out of its misery long ago. Steadily more units become vacant. The businesses that are left, of course, suffer a gradually dwindling footfall. Owners complain that new, cheaper shops appearing as short-term lets around them could undermine their offering, despite the substantial rents that they are still paying. All of these problems are further compounded by the lack of a very sizeable business rate discount, not to mention the impending increases.

Elsewhere in central Croydon, other developers who were hotly anticipating Westfield’s construction as a catalyst for their own developments are quietly shelving their schemes altogether. The controversial Menta tower has now been officially canned to be replaced by a less ambitious plan. The planning permission for Croydon’s tallest potential development, 1 Lansdowne Road, looks like it has silently expired at the end of last month without comment, given that they don’t seem to be on site yet. Abandonment cannot be a good sign of investor confidence, even if you view individual schemes as questionable.

Contrary to optimistic estimates, this is still our most local Westfield centre.
Photo by Panhard, used under Creative Commons licence.

It seems difficult to believe now that an early target date put forward for an opening was this year, a schedule which Marco Cash, the incredulous and wonderfully-named owner of the Croydon Village, once threatened to bare his bottom on the town hall steps for, were it kept to. Thankfully, for rest of us, this public display is now most unlikely. In the intervening period of almost four years, the new date has slipped, gradually, to “2020/2021″. Even at the most optimistic possible open date (which seems unlikely given that the poor old Whitgift is due to be open for another Christmas) that’s a slip of three years in the intervening four. If we only get one year closer every four years, and it takes three years to complete, it’ll take twelve years to get there. I am unsure how much we’ll still care in 2029.

Intentions and expertise aside, big projects are more vulnerable than smaller ones

That calculation is, of course, just a trick to make a point. The Croydon Partnership has restated its intentions to keep pressing on (pick up a copy of the April 2017 edition of the Citizen news magazine to see the full statement), and I don’t believe for a second that it intends to give up on it or that it lacks the resources or expertise to pull it off. Brexit may have shaken the partnership last year, but people do still want to shop.

But ultimately, this is not about intentions, it’s about the inherent risks of massive projects.

In the world of software development – my day job – most of us gave up on the idea of ‘mega projects’ years ago. After many years of high profile IT failures – huge government software projects cancelled after massive delays and millions of pounds, corporate systems that were seriously outdated before they were even released – my industry turned to a new style of project management altogether, one commonly known as ‘agile’.

With technology and markets changing all the time, there simply isn’t enough information when you start to make good decisions about what you’ll be doing even a year from now. The first day of the project is actually the most stupid; it’s the one where we know the least about what issues will affect us during the project and the least about what people will want in the future. So in an agile approach we deliberately don’t create massive, detailed plans. We spend a lot of time setting a good but broad vision and a few pieces of critical detail. Then we work constantly in increments to gradually work our way there, constantly delivering small pieces of value so that we always at least produce something useful if the worst happens.

While Westfield has continued to suffer delays, Stanhope and Schroders have been beavering away at their Ruskin Square mega-development

The Westfield plan is the opposite of this. It’s a huge, exciting mega-plan conceived as a single entity, built in one go. Change happens around it constantly: the land available to it (such as the purchase of Green Dragon house); potential tenants (M&S, John Lewis); financial markets (Brexit); political changes (Brexit again); and the evolution of retail (Amazon and every other rapidly growing e-commerce innovation). But the plan can only be updated in massive, complex re-planning exercises, complete with long-winded consultations. So instead of some part of it being delivered at least, its entire delivery is constantly deferred in the spirit of getting it right. But the truth is that it will never be completely right, because even if your design is perfect this year, it won’t be by the time you actually started building.

No doubt seasoned property experts will say that this problematic dynamic and its potential solution in an agile approach doesn’t apply to property development. But the evidence that I’m onto something here is being built just a couple of streets away. While Westfield has continued to suffer delays, Stanhope and Schroders have been beavering away at their Ruskin Square mega-development. For years, this similarly gargantuan and monolithic plan for the “Croydon Gateway” by East Croydon Station was struck by battles and delays. Now, though, there’s a new apartment block (already occupied), a new office (already let) and, of course, Boxpark (already in heavy use) on the site.

Unlike Westfield, what they have planned isn’t a single grand entity, it’s a collection of mixed-use buildings for which a broad and coherent planning outline exists. They aren’t building it all at once, but one residential or office block at a time in response to market demand with temporary uses like Platform and Boxpark to keep it lively. If they really need to change the mix of these buildings as they go they can do so, and with a less complex application to the authority. It makes tremendous sense because, from start to end, they were still going to be there ten years on. The one certainty that they can have is that what they thought they needed to do at the beginning won’t be quite what was needed at the end.

Of course, when you’re building a single huge centre, it’s not quite as easy because the whole shopping experience has to be more cohesive. But all that that requires is some tougher, more modular thinking. Why are they even planning the flats now? Why not just design a robust structure that is intended to be built around, much like the Overground station at the Bishops Goodsyard project in Shoreditch? Westfield is already working on extensions at both of its other London malls. Why not design something now that can be extended easily, cheaply and attractively in future and get building the first 800,000 square feet of the mall with the connection between North End and George Street sooner rather than later?

There’s always a specific excuse

Defenders of delays in all massive projects will say that there were specific, unforeseeable reasons for failure which will never trouble the project again: ‘It was just aligning all of the interests that was more time consuming than originally thought’. ‘It was just this one time we needed to re-do the project because we saw a particular opportunity to make it better’. ‘It was just this one issue that…’ complete the sentence with whatever. Plans are adapted on the assumption that things will be different now. Now that all of these issues are solved, nothing else can possibly come out of the woodwork again… can it?

The toughest and most reliable truth about projects is that even with the best will in the world there is always just one more thing that you simply couldn’t anticipate until you’re done. This is true no matter how smart your team is or how able you think you are.

But if you start delivering something, then at least you are insured against the total failure of your project. By reducing what you can control – the initial scope – and getting to work right away, you are guaranteed at least to leave some legacy. If Croydon only got a slightly smaller mall, or less parking, or no apartments, it would still be a massive step forward, even if it fell short of the partnership’s most impressive visions.

Opting for a single ‘big bang’ delivery is just asking for more problems

There are enough identifiable longer term potential threats to big retail schemes already. Brexit may not be hitting the project now, but if there were a severe turn in the UK’s economic fortunes, they might have to reconsider their portfolio; it would be their duty to the two partner companies’ shareholders. Online retail might only account for 14.3% of retail spending in the UK as of last year, but it grows solidly every single year and its affect on high street retail is characterised by the relatively sudden departure of whole sectors at once. Electronics and appliance selling on the high street is a shadow of what it once was, as is entertainment retail. Even fashion – amongst the sectors where physical experience matters most – is rapidly growing online. Given that it does not take a genius to observe even these issues, it seems foolhardy to me to ask for more problems by opting for a single ‘big bang’ delivery.

That fact that such projects always face ‘unknown unknowns’ is why I can’t really say if Westfield will happen or not. I don’t think that anyone can really know for sure. All we can know is that at this, the key moment in its history, Croydon’s regeneration has a better chance if its biggest player decides to just do something. It seems almost certain that the new plans will be granted permission next month. If the partnership doesn’t try to at least implement some aspect of them soon, we might all be waiting around for 2029.

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James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • cageyc

    Whatever else they may be, the people behind Westfield are not stupid. They must be able to see as clearly as anyone that high street shopping is on the way out and the future is online. The growth area seems to be food and drink, look at Boxpark.

  • Anthony Miller

    I remember when we had the Warehouse Theatre. They promised to build a new one. That never happened. Now we have a giant mega pub. I expect if it ever happens Westfield will be a similar scale of cultural success.