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Are mega malls good for town centres?

As a huge Westfield shopping centre in Croydon gets approval, the London Assembly this week discussed the benefits and drawbacks of mega malls, as Jamie Hailstone reports.

The changing face of Britain’s high streets could be a ‘good mechanism’ to get more people involved in their area, according to one council chief executive.

Speaking yesterday in front of the London Assembly’s regeneration committee, the chief executive of Croydon council, Jo Negrini, said that the nature of town centre high streets is changing, with food and drink ‘pushing the economies in those smaller town centres’.

‘You can see it happening all over London,’ she told the committee. ‘There are no banks on town high streets anymore. Most of them are being turned into places where people eat and drink.’

Ms Negrini added councils need to be ‘pragmatic’ about what is happening in town centres to ensure smaller high streets keep going.

‘I think what’s happening in a lot of boroughs is that local authorities are doing a lot more work with communities on the ground in those town centres to find solutions, which are specific to those areas,’ said the chief executive.

‘The changing high street is a good mechanism for getting people involved in their area,’ she added.

‘It gives an opportunity for voluntary organisations to work with communities to talk about how they will look.’

The committee was meeting to discuss the impact of large shopping centres on town centres, including Brent Cross and the new Westfield shopping centre in Croydon, which was approved last week.

Speaking about the new Westfield centre in Croydon, Ms Negrini said the company behind the development spends a ‘lot of time working with communities’.

‘I moved to Croydon in 2014 and when I moved there Westfield had just got their original consent and they were already funding different community organisations, doing a lot of outreach,’ she told the committee members.

‘Westfield’s business model relies on them knowing the population and their employment source. They need to be able to provide a steady labour force into those developments. It’s in their interest to do so. They will work with anybody who can help them to do that.’

Newham council’s head of regeneration, Robin Cooper, said the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford has been a ‘stunning success story’.

‘It was a bit of a gamble, because everyone knew it would work for the Olympics, but would people still want to go to those shops after the Olympics? They are getting one million shoppers every week,’ said Mr Cooper.

In most geographies, the existing town centre would have suffered as a result of that, but we still have the traditional Stratford centre and that gets around half a million visitors every week.

‘We get an amazing number of people going through the traditional centre, and that has become the day-to-day shopping centre, while the Westfield centre has become the place where you only go if you dress up.’

But Brent Cross resident and co-founder of the Clitterhouse Farm Project, Paulette Singer, said in her experience residents were not able to influence the consultation process for new regeneration projects, like Brent Cross.

‘Residents and people who would be engaged in creative processes and developing community spaces are spending most of their time fire-fighting the loss of green spaces, buildings and adequate housing,’ she told the committee.

‘I’m struggling to see how communities can prevent the negative impact of regeneration, when we are being asked to engage when regeneration is already underway.’

In response, Ms Negrini admitted regeneration can often be a ‘balancing act’ for local authorities.

‘I think we have an absolute responsibility to ensure we create great places for our residents, and our success will be judged on how much we were able to take existing people in these areas on that journey of change,’ said the Croydon chief executive.

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