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Will the council’s town centre gamble pay off?

Will the council’s town centre gamble pay off?
Jul 15, 2016 Shaking Hands 0 comments
This article was first published on The Croydon Citizen on 15/07/2016

Will the council’s town centre gamble pay off?

Sean Creighton, long opposed to the Westfield development, warns that the council may be putting all of their eggs in one uncertain basket.

Whether we like it or not, unless Westfield and Hammerson pull the plug, its redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre is a done deal. We therefore have to concentrate on minimising its negative aspects and maximising any benefits that can be delivered within the context of the – in my view, unwelcome – transformation of Central Croydon from concrete to glass brutalism.

Councillors need to be forensic in their analysis of the revised planning proposals for the centre that are being considered by the Planning Committee on 14th July, and whether the Environmental Impact Assessment Scoping Study is adequate, which has yet to be considered by the committee. Given the superficiality with which they usually question reports across the committees, whether they are up to the job remains to be seen.

Westfield and Hammerson have committed themselves to continuing with the project. One of the downsides of the demolition and construction phase, however, will be the loss of the council’s share of business rates on the current shopping centre for at least three years.

Large numbers of transport and public realm projects are needed

The massive transformation of Central Croydon (the Croydon Opportunity Area [COA]) poses a major challenge for infrastructure investment needed ‘both as a catalyst to further growth and to accommodate the demands of a significantly increased population’.

A consultant’s report which supports the growth plan estimates that there will be a new population of 19,271 people, of whom 4,456 will be aged 0-17. The extra services needed to support them include:

  • 11 more GPs by 2031
  • 29.3 hectares of extra of parks and open spaces
  • 16,000sqm of Locally Equipped Areas for Play (LEAP) and 29,000 sqm Neighbourhood Equipped Areas for Play (NEAP)
  • 1,176sqm of new community space.

In addition, large numbers of transport and public realm projects are needed. A third, strategic primary grid substation is estimated to cost £4m. There is ‘no detailed information on planned investment’ for increasing 4,359,348 extra litres of water per hour that will be needed. Nor it is ‘clear what the implications for the management of waste’ will be.

To help kick-start the infrastructure work, the council has Government Growth Zone status, supported by a £7m fund. There is also a promise that it can keep 50% of the growth in business rates from April 2018 for 25 years in the COA so that the projected £310m income can pay for the required infrastructure.

The council claims that the growth zone status and grant provide ‘certainty to developers, investors and residents regarding the delivery of major infrastructure projects which is likely to accelerate discretionary development. This is especially important in terms of differentiating Croydon as a place to invest in London in a time of economic uncertainty post-Brexit.’

Almost everything depends on the completion and opening of the new Whitgift Centre not overrunning

The council says that the growth zone and its cultural programme and strategy have been major catalysts, providing ‘the confidence to developers and the investment community that Croydon takes regeneration seriously and that there is substance and depth behind its ambition’.

However, the foundations of £7m and a possible £310m do not seem very firm. While some 89 infrastructure projects have been identified, consultants suggest 39 are ‘critical’. These will cost£500m to be delivered over 12 years up to 2027, with expenditure peaking in 2020, with the receipt of the extra rates income starting that year with sharp growth up to 2023. The council ‘anticipates that all debt associated with the provision of the £309 million of infrastructure will be fully repaid by 2038’. Of course, this depends on the completion and opening of the new Whitgift Centre not overrunning.

The council’s Five Year Integrated Delivery Plan (FYIDP) will co-ordinate and manage the expected programme of development in the COA, and more importantly critically evaluate ‘the projected impacts presented by developers in support of applications for planning permission’.

The town centre could be left in chaos, with inadequate services for its new residents

A COA Planning Framework Construction Logistics Plan is being prepared. Issues of traffic management and air pollution are key aspects of this. It is ‘critical’ that the development changes are ‘properly managed to ensure that the metropolitan centre remains accessible, safe and a good place to live work and invest.’

The council recognises there are serious risks to the plan:

  • ‘The loan is not approved to enable the delivery of all the necessary infrastructure to address forecast growth’
  • ‘The business rate uplift forecast in the financial model is not forthcoming at the rate forecast’
  • ‘The stakeholders and partners fail to prioritise the 39 infrastructure projects within the delivery programme and infrastructure delivery is delayed and is not commensurate with development activity’
  • ‘The delivery models for each of the 39 projects fail to deliver the project in accordance with the programme and delivery activity’
  • ‘The projects delivered early in the programme are subject to overspend and this reduces the funding available to deliver projects within the later stages of the programme’
  • ‘The scale of development activity within the COA will be such that it becomes difficult to access and is an unpleasant place to live work and invest’
  • The potential impact of Brexit related risks.

The consultants warn that there are serious problems due to traffic congestion, railway and tram overcrowding and unfriendly public realm re-walking and cycling. They identify that there are about another 50 infrastructure projects, for which there is no money: social infrastructure, including secondary school provision, public health, sport and leisure and play space, and community facilities.

So while the developers walk away from Central Croydon having made big profits for their shareholders, the town centre could be left in chaos, with inadequate services for its new residents, workers and those coming in for shopping, culture and leisure.