A shopping centre’s traders are despairing over delays to a regeneration project which is yet to have its start date agreed, despite planning permission being confirmed in February 2014.
Delays to the £1.4 billion redevelopment of Croydon’s Whitgift Centre have cast a shadow over the future and many firms are now leaving – Mothercare became the latest to close down on March 31. Most of the centre’s units are now empty and stores continue to pack up.
The knock-on effect for traders yet to leave was highly damaging as they witnessed a plunge in consumer footfall.
Some of those still in the centre are in limbo waiting for Westfield developers to take over the site to access their compulsory purchase order (CPO) compensation.
But traders will only receive the compensation if they stay in the centre until it is knocked down.
The Croydon Partnership (CP) of two companies, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield and Hammerson, aims to replace the Whitgift Centre with a retail space for more than 300 shops, restaurants and cafés and more than 700 new homes.
The shopping centre’s Marks & Spencer and pop-up stalls attract small numbers of consumers but those suffering are the permanent traders in the shopping centre wings who continue to pay business rates despite working in a derelict building.
In November 2017 Hammerson said: “The partnership is now working towards an earliest commencement of full construction on site in 2019, allowing the Whitgift Centre to continue trading through the important 2018 Christmas period.”
But Whitgift traders read this in bemusement, fully aware that getting through the holiday season in such poor conditions would be gruelling.
Sales assistant Bini Ali, 30, has worked in the Whitgift Centre for four years. He said: “Every year there are less and less customers. This Christmas was really bad.”
But for those that chose to stay it seems they will have to get through another Christmas as Westfield announced last month the start date would be pushed back from September 2019 to an unconfirmed date next year.
The Whitgift traders are now sceptical the project will go ahead at all.
Classic Café owner Rico Caleap, 46, felt let down by the council’s lack of contact throughout the process and said they should be the bridge between the traders and developers.
Mr Caleap said: “It is not fair that they take the freedom from us, we can’t sell the business, we can’t go, we can’t stay.
“It’s horrible. I could talk to you for years about how bad it is here.”
He added: “60 or 70 per cent are closed down, it looks like a ghost town.”
Picture and photo framing business co-owner Denise Delicata said customers call her to check if their outlet is still open.
Mrs Delicata, 62, co-owns Image with her husband and has been in the Whitgift Centre for 18 years.
She said: “It’s blighted, there’s nobody coming in here at all. “We’re just lucky we’ve got regular customers that are keeping us afloat.
“If anybody new does come here they are absolutely disgusted and they’re never coming back.”
Mrs Delicata and her husband have endured five years of uncertainty and recalled receiving contracts to leave Whitgift since 2014.
Both are waiting until the end to claim their CPO compensation.
She said: “We’re of an age where we have to think of retiring anyway.”
Mrs Delicata said the Whitgift Centre used be heaving and bustling but in its current state the remaining traders cannot cope much longer.
Café owner Nuno Afonso, 41, has been running his English and Continental Bar in the centre since 1995 and was hit hard by the low footfall.
He said: “There’s nothing to come here for. “80 or 90 per cent of my customers are customers who have been coming for years and years.”
Mr Afonso recalled the figure was closer to 50 per cent in Whitgift’s heyday.
The café owner said he welcomed the Westfield development but only because it would give him a way out.
He is also waiting for Westfield developers to take over the site to access his CPO compensation.
He said: “If we go because we decide to go then we don’t get a penny. Some of us are just holding on.”
The Croydon Partnership’s website promises the project will open 7,000 new jobs and more than 700 new homes as part of a wider £5.25 billion redevelopment of Croydon.
Meanwhile the Whitgift traders await notice of the new development start date but are increasingly less tolerant of the delays.
A spokesman for Croydon council said: “Croydon council continues to work with CP to bring forward the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre.
“As part of this we have been using planning, highway and compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers, all of which require the notification of occupiers and interested parties.
“We have been communicating with those trading within the Whitgift Centre since before the CPO public enquiry in 2015.
“When the CPO land transfer process began last year, traders were again notified in writing and public notices were also displayed throughout the shopping centre.
“We appreciate it is a difficult time for many businesses, all with unique needs, but the council is working hard with CP to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum, which includes helping businesses find new premises and offering business advice to independent retailers.
“The council will continue to press CLP on a start date for the redevelopment and will continue to work with local traders and stakeholders to ensure the town centre remains viable and vibrant throughout this period of change.”
A spokesman for the Croydon Partnership said: “The Croydon Partnership is committed to the regeneration of the town centre and has delivered a number of key milestones over the last year. We are working closely with the council to finalise the land assembly process and continue to communicate with retailers. There currently remain challenges surrounding the UK economic and retail outlook and given this environment, we are reviewing the scheme to ensure it responds to changing consumer trends and is appropriate for the future.
“Alongside the Council, we recognise the importance of keeping the town trading and maintaining Croydon as an attractive retail destination for the benefit of everyone and we will continue to keep our retailers updated on our plans.”