Nearly one-third of the £100,000 “Portas Fund” promised to try to revive Croydon’s ailing Old Town shops and stalls is to be diverted to pay for the running of a council-run committee, Inside Croydon has discovered.
Much was made earlier this year by the council and the more pliant local media of Croydon’s “bid” winning a £100,000 grant, when the then minister Grant Shapps announced Croydon among the first dozen town centres that were chosen for funding as part of what appears little more than a government-funded high street makeover TV show.
In the wake of Allders’ announcement that it was going into receivership, fears were expressed then that such a modest amount might be “too little, too late” for Croydon town centre’s struggling retail outlets.
Now it appears that the already modest amount of cash is to be reduced even further, by £30,000, as it has been earmarked to pay for staffing and running a supervisory committee, made up of two council officials and some traders.
It even appears that Mary Portas, the “Queen of Shops”, has opted not to bother basing one of her television case studies in and around Surrey Street, opting instead to film her programmes elsewhere.
Nearly six months after the grant award was announced, and substantive work using the Portas Fund has yet to begin – which exposes how lacking in hard detail the council’s winning bid must have been.
The fear for stall-holders and shop-owners on Surrey Street is that if something drastic to revive the ancient market is not done soon, there may be no shops or stalls left to revive.
Murray’s Meat Market closed, re-opened as Terry’s Meat Market, and is closed again. What happened? “Went bust mate,” according to the owner of the Caribbean jerk chicken stand on the pitch outside the now vacant butcher’s. Low-cost meat, a Polish-run delicatessen to appeal to eastern European newcomers and other initiatives all failed to revive the business.
“That’s the third time it’s closed since I’ve been here, and I’ve been working here for six, seven years,” the jerk chicken man says. Has the closure affected his business? “Maybe there’s less people coming past. But look at it…” he looks down the length of the less-than-thriving Surrey Street, “it’s dying on its feet.”
Other efforts to liven up the market – a St George’s Day Festival, a weekend of new stall holders in the summer – well-intentioned as they were, have provided little lasting impact on the market’s use by shoppers.
Surrey Street was granted its royal licence in the Middle Ages and survived and thrived through the Plague, two World Wars and the previous Great Depression of the 1930s. But that was long before people drove their 4x4s to out-of-town megastores for the weekly shop.
And now looming on the horizon of Surrey Street is yet another supermarket threat, a Sainsbury’s, in what was once the Brannigan’s night spot on the High Street, poised surely to divert all passing, casual trade, possibly sucking the last gasp of breath from the ailing street market.
There was to be no hoped-for Olympic business uplift even for specialist shops such as Runathon, the sports shop, which closed its shutters on Surrey Street for the final time in July.
Next door is another vacant shop front, now used only to plead for potential new lease-holders. It offers the less-than-enticing prospect of an annual rent of £30,000 – a daunting figure for any start-up at a time of declining sales and 20 per cent VAT, plus crippling levels of business rates.
It is no secret that even the country’s established retailers are in crisis, with well-known chains such as Habitat, Blacks, Peacocks and Game all under pressure. Clinton Cards has announced the closure of all its shops. The multiples closed 14 shops a day last year, and those gaps on the nation’s high streets are not being filled, except for charity shops (there’s now more than 9,000 charity shops across the country, their overheads subsidised by an army of volunteer shop assistants, working for nothing), bookmakers and express-style supermarkets.
Across the country, vacancy rates run as high as 30 per cent. In central Croydon, according to an invaluable survey conducted last month by Kake Pugh, there’s 115 vacant shops. The online mapping offers a stark picture of Croydon in decline in 2012 – and that’s not including the likes of Allders, the declining department store so closely associated with the town and now in receivership for the second time in half a dozen years.
Of course, there’s a limit on what can be done by a local council against a tsunami of national and international economic pressures. There’s also a limit on what can be achieved with £100,000. Even less when the available amount is reduced to £70,000 because of “admin costs”.
But you’d think there might be something locally that could be done – special, medium term arrangements for free or cheaper car parking, maybe even a cut in business rates.
So yesterday, Inside Croydon contacted the council press office at Taberner House and posed a couple of questions. We asked for a statement from the council to explain the lack of urgency in implementing the Portas funding.
We asked what are the plans to use the money – before Croydon’s high streets are allowed to be taken over entirely by superrmarket express stores, bookies and charity shops.
And we asked the council to justify the spending of £30,000 of the total £100,000 grant on the running and management of yet another committee.
We’ve not had any answers to those questions.
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- Number of vacant high street shops continues to rise (independent.co.uk)
- Coathangers at dawn! Mary Portas rocked by Margate walkout (independent.co.uk)
- Two years of pain: Now 1 in 7 shops are empty on our high streets (mirror.co.uk)