Why a 400-year-old charity holds the key to Croydon's future
FROM our main shopping centre and one of the borough’s most historic pubs to the Reeves Furniture site that was destroyed in the riots, the Whitgift Foundation is central to the future of some Croydon’s most vital sites. Today, in a rare interview, two chief of the 400-year-old foundation break their silence to tell Ian Austen why they are convinced they are acting in the borough’s best interests – despite some widespread criticism of their recent approach...
FOR more than 400 years, the Whitgift Foundation has been working, largely quietly, to raise millions of pounds for education and to support the elderly.
But over the past few months the charity, run from the imposing Almshouses on the corner of George Street and North End, has found itself at the centre of controversy.
It has come under fire from Royal London and the Irish Bank for ploughing ahead with an agreement with retail giants Westfield to redevelop the Whitgift Centre, of which the foundation is the freeholder.
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So upset were the two organisations, which own 75 per cent of the centre's leasehold, that they chose Centrale owner Hammerson to come up with a rival Whitgift proposal.
In South Croydon, traders have hit out at the foundation's decision to agree a deal with Tesco to open a convenience store at the site of the former Swan and Sugar-loaf pub in Brighton Road.
The neighbouring traders claim this could be the death knell for many of them.
This week the foundation has broken its silence to set out its belief that all the decisions it takes are made for the benefit of Croydon.
The message from Ian Harley, chairman of the foundation's court of governors and its clerk, Martin Corney, was that standing still is not an option.
Mr Corney said: "I don't think a lot of people know what we do and we have perhaps hidden our light under a bushel. Providing £38 million over the last ten years is something we are proud of."
On the subject of the Whitgift Centre, Mr Harley said: "The centre has a limited physical life and as that life runs out, the centre will become less attractive to retailers.
"There is already a run down in income and in 25 years' time the centre will be empty if it doesn't get rebuilt."
And Mr Corney made it clear that as far as the foundation is concerned, Westfield is the best bet for that vital regeneration.
He said: "We think that Westfield will be the big catalyst for transformation.
"They have got the financial resources to get on and deliver a new centre quickly.
"We can't afford any delay and we have the biggest interest to see the project get off the ground and get more shoppers into the town.
"We want to bring more people to Croydon."
Both Mr Harley and Mr Corney accept that income for charity is ultimately at the heart of any of its negotiations.
Without protecting its income stream from places like the Whitgift Centre and the pub, the pair claim the support for its work providing bursaries for pupils attending its three schools – Whitgift, Trinity and Old Palace – would be under threat, as would support for residents in the Almshouse and its care homes.
At present, the foundation is providing around £5 million a year for bursaries, with 1,300 of the 3,000 pupils at the three independent schools receiving financial help with their fees.
A further £500,000 a year goes to support around 100 elderly residents in the charity's care.
As part of its charitable trust status, the foundation says it must maximise its income to support its cause or be in breach of the law.
And that applies, according to its bosses, equally to Westfield and the Swan and Sugar-loaf.
The foundation has been criticised for not consulting over the Tesco deal.
Mr Corney said there was no requirement to consult, but added: "We had to ensure we found a tenant to secure income in the long term.
"I have had e-mails objecting to what we have done but I have also had many which welcome the decision to get a good trader in there because people see it as a way of regenerating that part of the town."
The foundation is now turning its attention to the future of the Reeves Corner site, left derelict after the furniture store was burned down in the August riots.
The Reeves family has indicated it does not want to rebuild on the land and is aiming to surrender its lease on the part of the site owned by the foundation.
Mr Corney said: "We are keen to see to a development on the Reeves plot as soon as we can.
"Whether we put retail or residential down there depends on what it is decided can be done."
Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift set up the foundation in 1596 in order, he said, "to provide education for the young and care for the elderly". That aim remains central to its present day mission statement, which is to broaden access to the foundation’s three schools "to talented young people".
The statement also says the foundation exists "to provide high quality care homes and sheltered accommodation to the elderly in Croydon and the surrounding area".
The original 1600 buildings comprised the Almshouses (first known as the Hospital of the Holy Trinity), the School House and schoolmaster’s house.
In 1923, the Almshouses were threatened with demolition but were saved by the House of Lords and made a listed building. That year also saw the Whitgift Middle School move on to the North End site.
In 1931 the Whitgift Grammar School moved to its Haling Park site and reverted to its original name, Whitgift School.
In 1954 the middle school was renamed Trinity School of John Whitgift. It moved to Shirley Park in 1965 allowing it former site to be redeveloped as the Whitgift shopping centre.
Old Palace girls’ school in Old Palace Road became part of the Foundation in 1993. Three years later, the Queen visited Old Palace and the Almshouses to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the hospital.
The administration and charitable work of the foundation is presided over by the 17-strong Court of Governors – which includes some of Croydon’s key players.
Seven of those are appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, while six are co-opted members appointed by the court after extensive interviews.
Martin Corney, clerk to the foundation, said the aim was to appoint governors with a wide range of skills. It currently includes financial experts and people with backgrounds in health services, the law and business.
Two members of the court, Councillors Dudley and Margaret Mead, have been appointed by Croydon Council. The Vicar of Croydon, Canon Colin Boswell and the Bishop of Croydon are ex-officio governors.
Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell is a co-opted governor after originally serving as a council appointment.
And Labour councillor Toni Letts is an Archbishop’s appointment, also having originally served as a council appointee.