Independents in Croydon said the long-delayed Westfield development will be “too little too late” to save the town, which has become a retail graveyard.
In 2012, property developers Westfield and Hammerson revealed £1.4bn plans to redevelop the Whitgift Centre shopping mall and other aging retail units in Croydon town centre, under the name Croydon Partnership.
Last month, the council took possession of the former Allders department store and the building is currently undergoing a full health and safety audit. The Croydon Partnership has still not revealed how long the review will take, or offered a new date for construction to begin.
A Freedom of Information request by restructuring advisory firm Duff & Phelps found there were 1,269 empty retail units in the Croydon borough in November 2018. Independents said the vast number of empty units meant footfall had diminished and may not recover.
“If the project is delayed again and [not completed until] 2023, Croydon will have deteriorated altogether,” said one independent store owner. “Croydon used to be so good, but now the high street is completely dead, and it looks like a poor, deprived area. It would be devastating if [Westfield] falls through because there are already vast numbers of empty retail units in the area and a distinct lack of footfall.”
Bakhtawar Budwal, owner of family-run designer clothing independent Budwals, agreed: “It is worrying that [Westfield] keeps getting delayed.
“We need work to start happening and for it to be completed as soon as possible so people can start coming back to Croydon. There are so many shops empty in the shopping centre and on the high street. Soon there will be no independent or big retailers left.
“The council and all these landlords should sit together and sort something out.”
Several large retailers, including John Lewis and Marks & Spencer have confirmed commitment to retail space in the development. However, some independents are worried they will be pushed out if the project ever comes into fruition.
“Westfield Croydon will be great for major chains and bringing in footfall, but indies will probably be squeezed out”, said Kemi Okunola, manager of haberdasher Rokka Sheek. “It would be nice if the developers considered us by lowering rents and business rates to include small and unique business. Unfortunately, not many of us will be able to afford to go on the main high street.”
Another independent store owner agreed: “The Partnership said they’re going to include independent retailers in the plans, but no one has spoken to us about it.”
A Croydon Council spokesman said: “Some of the empty units will be redeveloped as part of the Whitgift Centre and other redevelopments, but we don’t want to lose our independent businesses. They make up a large part of Croydon’s economy, and we support them in a number of ways including offering discretionary rate relief and access to low-interest rate loans available to businesses that may not qualify for loans through banks. We also work with businesses to ensure they get a space suitable for them.”
In a statement, Croydon Partnership said: “With the changing retail market in the UK, and shifting consumer demands, we are continuing to review the Croydon development to ensure it meets future needs. The objective is to increase the leisure and dining offers, with a hotel and offices also being considered in addition to residential. We remain committed to the town centre, and believe that Croydon has strong potential with flagship destinations outperforming over the long term. We will continue to work closely with all stakeholders and remain part of the regeneration of the town. We are long-term investors in the area and to date have invested over £300m in Croydon including development and community investments.”