The first meeting of a new residents group for people living and working in and around the South End area of South Croydon made a strong case against allowing Tesco to open another Express store, using the Whitgift Foundation-owned Swan & Sugarloaf pub, and pledged to help support local independent traders improve their shop fronts and enhance the neighbourhood.
It was standing room only in St Peter’s church hall on Friday evening, with more than 40 people – a mix of shop-owners, architects, lawyers, tradespeople and residents from three different Croydon council wards – attending, and finding consensus on a broad range of local issues, from street cleaning and rubbish collections, to youth unemployment and the desire for a community music festival.
Although the meeting had been widely publicised, not a single Croydon councillor from the three wards that cover the area – Fairfield, Croham or Waddon – bothered to attend to hear what local residents had to say. Yet there were nearly three times as many residents in attendance for this event as turned up for the council’s Waddon Question Time earlier in the week.
The South End meeting was held barely 12 hours before government minister Grant Shapps announced that Surrey Street and Church Street was to be one of 12 shopping areas in the country to receive a £100,000 grant as part of Mary “Queen of Shops” Portas’s project to revive the great British high street.
The video, made by Croydon Council press officer John Bownas, is clearly entirely spontaneous and unscripted…
The government cash will be used to provide small loans and help to establish new businesses and stalls in a food court in Exchange Square – some of which, inevitably, will be trading in opposition to longer established stall-holders with plots on Surrey Street.
How all this will work, also, with a new Sainsbury’s superstore about to be developed on the High Street – potentially drawing away large numbers of customers from Surrey Street – does not appear to have been addressed in any manner.
“I’m looking forward to seeing new businesses springing up in the market and surrounding streets and it will be amazing to see Exchange Square finally brought to life,” said the ever-cheery Vidhi Mohan, the council cabinet member for communities and economic development, apparently oblivious to the fact that his administration at the council might have invested considerably less than £100,000 at any time over the past six years to get such a scheme under way.
Others have questioned whether the government’s £1.2 million total grant is not just some elaborate window dressing, doing little more than providing the makeover budget for the next Portas TV series.
There was also some immediate reaction from other parts of the borough to the Croydon bid: why was Surrey Street chosen, and not one of the other, often tatty and down-at-heel high streets in the borough where traders are also struggling to keep their businesses’ heads above water in the midst of the double dip recession?
The winning Croydon bid – “transforming the riot-stricken area’s historic Old Town market into a thriving market, food and cultural quarter” – has the paw-prints of the council’s favoured PR agency, White Label, all over it, with their obsession for “re-branding” parts of the borough. “Surrey Street” seems to have been a good enough and well-recognised name for the street market for nearly 900 years. Will anyone really know or care where the “Cultural Quarter” is?
White Label, a local agency headed by former newspaper exec Jo Gumb, was behind the staging of two well-received street festivals last month, the food festival in South End and the St George’s Day event in Surrey Street.
But even White Label was unable to say whether these events would be anything more than “one-offs”, with little long-term impact for the areas.
Certainly, the feeling among people at the South End meeting on Friday was firmly against White Label being involved in any further festivals.
“We want to run our own events – we think we can do it better and cheaper,” one resident said.
Others were also against the re-branding of the area as a “Restaurant Quarter” as being misguided, misconceived and misleading.
“What about other shops, the music shops, like mine, the cycle shops, the antiques shops that used to be here, and all the others…? This area is not just about restaurants.
“But by calling it the Restaurant Quarter, they risk turning away people who could be our customers.”
One pensioner, who has lived in South End for 40 years, also regretted the way the area had been allowed to be taken over by so many restaurants. “I don’t go into any of the restaurants. I can’t afford to,” she said.
“When we first moved to the area, there were greengrocers, butchers, bakers. They’ve all gone now.”
Many of the Portas proposals for Surrey Street had been discussed in a different geographical context at the South End meeting the previous night, with residents and traders agreeing to work together – without any public money – to try to improve shop fronts and keep a check on the many boarded up empty shops.
This included some disquiet at landowner Whitgift Foundation, for failing in its duty as a landlord to maintain its own buildings, in an area by Selsdon Road of local historical interest.
It was the desire for a more varied and diverse high street with thriving independent traders – one of the main objectives of the “Portas Project” – which unified the South End meeting in its opposition to the planned Tesco Express.
Dire warnings of how Tesco’s two-year business plan for new stores is based on sucking up all business in a radius of 500 metres until rival stores are forced to close saw the meeting agree that forming opposition – including a possible boycott of the Swan & Sugarloaf Tesco – would be among the priorities of the soon-to-be-formed association.
What was particularly interesting was the complaints of the relative lack of information about local issues.
The local newspapers were said to be inadequate in keeping track of local events; several people at the meeting told how they knew nothing about the food festival (even though neighbouring streets had been leafleted and the freebie Croydon Guardian carried a wrap-round ad for the event); while others had no idea that Croydon Council is conspiring to build a waste incinerator to pump out noxious fumes over the area for the next quarter century.
Other planning issues will also be on the new organisation’s agenda, such as proposals for a 40-storey tower block in the area and council plans to shut the Spicer’s Yard car park.
The residents’ obvious frustration with the council, especially over the poor quality of street cleaning and rubbish collections, and parking policies, was evident, as was enormous goodwill to the local traders’ association, headed by Alfonso Camisotti, the meeting ending in agreement to forge close links to support the area’s independent traders.
- The next meeting of the South End community forum is to be Friday June 8, again in the church hall at St Peter’s, off Heathfield Road.
- For more information about the South End group, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Inside Croydon: A news source about Croydon that is not based in Redhill. Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, email us at email@example.com
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