How we did it: Securing a purchase order for key site

A south London borough has secured approval to acquire land needed for town centre regeneration. Susie Sell reports.

Team: principal corporate solicitor Sean Murphy, senior regeneration manager Janet Davies and south area development management team leader Ross Gentry [pic Julian Dodd]
Team: principal corporate solicitor Sean Murphy, senior regeneration manager Janet Davies and south area development management team leader Ross Gentry [pic Julian Dodd]

Project: Whitgift Centre Compulsory Purchase Order

Key Organisations: London Borough of Croydon, Westfield, Hammerson, Whitgift Foundation, Greater London Authority, Transport for London

Completed in the 1970s, Croydon’s Whitgift shopping centre was once a big draw on London’s retail circuit. But with limited investment since the 1990s, it now cuts a tired outline compared to shinier modern rivals such as White City and Stratford.

Now a £1 billion redevelopment project is being brought forward for the site and surrounding area, spearheaded by developers Westfield and Hammerson through their Croydon Partnership joint venture. The scheme seeks to deliver up to 136,000 square metres of retail and 16,000 square metres of leisure space, alongside community space, offices, access and public realm upgrades and up to 600 homes.

The project made a major advance last month when communities secretary Greg Clark confirmed a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for a seven-hectare town centre block comprising the Whitgift Centre, the former Allders department store, other shops and vacant offices. The decision gives the council and developers certainty that all the land and rights needed for the scheme can be acquired, strengthening their hand in future talks with hitherto recalcitrant property owners and occupiers.

The partnership’s comprehensive redevelopment plans for the block received outline permission and conservation area consent in February 2014. Ross Gentry, the London Borough of Croydon’s south area development management team leader, says talks on reserved matters are in hand. The scheme is also in line with an opportunity area planning framework drawn up by the council and the Greater London Authority adopted in 2013, he says.

However, land ownership posed a problem. Westfield and Hammerson had started to buy parts of the site even before forming the partnership in January 2013 and have made significant progress since. However, it became clear that site assembly was unlikely to be completed by agreement within a reasonable time.

Janet Davies, senior regeneration manager at the council, says the project could not have made progress without the CPO. "The complex nature of ownership prevented any comprehensive or even piecemeal redevelopment of the site," she says.

To help break the deadlock, the council’s cabinet resolved to make the CPO in April 2014 and it was drawn up by the end of the month. Objections prompted a public inquiry over 12 hearing days this spring. Clark’s approval of the order was announced on 15 September. The council’s principal corporate solicitor, Sean Murphy, says the timeframe was as it had expected.

He adds that some 360 occupiers and owners have a stake in the site. Wherever possible, he emphasises, attempts have been made to acquire land through negotiation. "Part of the process for CPOs is that you need to show that you have tried to acquire by negotiation and are continuing to do so. These attempts have been extensive. In some instances they have been successful, in some instances they are ongoing."

Given the complexities, securing the order has involved an unusual amount of professional advisory input. Pinsent Masons, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Ashurst provided legal advice, backed by Landmark Chambers barristers David Elvin QC, Richard Moules and Richard Turney. Deloitte Real Estate, CBRE, Nigel Laing Associates, Quod and Allies & Morrison gave advice on planning, design and commercial aspects.

Alongside the CPO, the inspector endorsed the council’s proposal for a stopping-up order for Dingwall Avenue, a key street through the site. Murphy says it was important that the timetables of these parallel procedures were aligned. "With two separate legal processes, you want to make sure that one isn’t impeding the other. It certainly required very careful programming from a timetable perspective," he says.

If talks to buy out remaining occupiers and owners break down, compensation arrangements may ultimately need to be decided by the Lands Tribunal. "But we really hope not to end up there," Murphy says. In some cases, he adds, negotiations could continue for quite some time yet. "It’s not as if we are just acquiring one plot of land from one landowner," he says.

Meanwhile, the council has promised that efforts will be made to relocate displaced businesses. Opposite the Whitgift site is the Centrale Mall, which is owned by Croydon Partnership. "We will be looking to relocate as many existing businesses as possible across the road. This will enable Croydon town centre to remain an active, busy, commercially vibrant place right the way through the redevelopment process," says Davies.

She forecasts a number of benefits from the project, including a boost to investor confidence. "Every time the council has taken a decision on the Whitgift, the market has moved up. There’s been a lot more activity in terms of land being traded and applications coming forward for determination," she says.

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