Croydon is readying itself for a royal visit today: Mary Queen of Shops may be heading into town.
This is not to be confused with Kate Middleton’s in-laws pressing the flesh along London Road, back 13 months after last year’s riots devastated the lives and businesses of people in the area.
After smiling sweetly and making all the right noises – wonder if Charles will offer to intervene over the authorities’ failures to pay out riot compensation? – the royal couple is also visiting Croydon College, where they will unveil a plaque to mark the launch of the University Centre Croydon.
An event linked to the High Street revival grants fronted by Mary Portas – or “TV’s Queen of Shops”, as she might be billed by the Favoured Halls – is less well-publicised than the royal visit.
With Croydon being one of the first 12 schemes to receive the £100,000 government grants to help to revitalise their High Streets, a “workshop” is to be held in Croydon for the leaders of the lucky schemes from around the kingdom.
David Cameron’s retailing guru Portas – after a somewhat heated initial meeting with some real-life retailers in Margate earlier in the summer – was expected to attend, in the midst of her busy media schedule.
The timing of the Portas Project’s workshop in Croydon appears less than opportune: yet another supermarket monolith has just opened one of its stores at the top end of Surrey Street, while a few yards up the High Street, Allders really is closing down for the final time, a signal of decline. These are issues that a mere £100,000 won’t come close to fixing.
Especially when there’s just £70,000 of that government money actually available, after Croydon Council craftily earmarked 30 grand to spend on a committee, as Inside Croydon revealed earlier this month.
“Inside Croydon has uncovered even more Tory waste,” Tony Newman, the leader of the local Labour party, said on reading our report.
“This money being diverted to fund a committee, when taken alongside the taking of money allocated to the London Road riot victims to fund flower baskets in the south of the borough, is further proof that this council is completely out of touch with the people they are meant to serve.
“Frankly, they are not fit to govern.”
A source with COBA, the Croydon Old Town Business Association, informs us that this £30,000 “includes staffing a town team coordinator to drive things forward and collate everything”. Recruitment is underway, we’re assured.
Surrey Street already has a well-liked market inspector, in Fiona Woodcock, but she has a limit on her time and powers. But the appointment of a council employee to manage issues for traders in the Old Town does raise a question of where the council leaders’ priorities lay: surely such an appointment ought to be in place already if this area is really as important to Croydon as Jon Rouse and Mike Fisher always claim so earnestly?
Of course, the Portas Project is a perfect distraction for Croydon Council. While this modest scheme is on-going, the officials in Taberner House can stand back and continue their policy of malign neglect. Not, though, that they will allow anyone else to take control.
The “town team” committee includes representatives from COBA, which was set up in the wake of the riots just a year ago, Croydon Minster, the council, Croydon BID (the council-influenced business group), someone from the Princes Foundation, and a single local resident. A simple headcount suggests that such a panel has an in-built, council Establishment majority guaranteed.
According to a source on the town team, early plans for spending the 70 grand left over suggest £30,000 on “Heritage for Enterprise”, “helping to establish a solid independent retail offering in Old Town”; £30,000 on small business micro loans (with the emphasis on “micro”?); and £10,000 to establish a food court area – probably located just outside the coffee house and co-working business recently established at Matthews Yard.
Given how swiftly the council swung into “action” in order to win the grant by producing its promotional video, dripping with scripted insincerity, progress since winning the bid and implementing any real changes through the Portas fund has been glacially slow.
“Because of the desire for us to ensure anything we do is sustainable and provides ‘return on investment’ in order to ensure the Portas funds sow the seeds for lasting change, no firm decisions on expenditure have been made yet,” one COBA member told Inside Croydon.
Some traders along Surrey Street remain sceptical and have genuine fears that – like Boris’s post-riots recovery fund – the cash will be squandered by the council to pay for expensive but vacuous PR campaigns. A one-off weekend event in July offering free stall hire for traders from outside the Old Town area has been and gone. Did it really leave any lasting impression for the regular traders?
“The principle of the Portas grant was to enable a team made up of local business interests to make independent decisions about how their budget should best be used,” a local trader involved with the discussions told us.
“The team didn’t exist prior to the Portas project, so it has taken a little while for them to properly constitute their membership and develop the capacity amongst their members to enable them to make best and most effective use of the funds available.
“Work has been ongoing to review the management of the market, assess options for returning empty shop units and public space to use and bring in more involvement from young people in the area.” This includes approaching some of the concessions displaced by the closure of Allders.
“COBA has looked at hiring a market manager or market management company that would work alongside to make the Surrey Street a thriving and bustling market again that would draw crowds and be a destination market Croydon can be proud of once again,” said Kerem Hassan, the chairman of COBA, who runs Cash and Cheque Express.
Many of the “initiatives” mentioned, when looked at closely, strongly suggest the influence of one or two of the more vocal businesses or individuals. Quite how a “Heritage Tour” might benefit anyone other than the coffee-drinking tour operator is a moot point. And where might an ice rink and Christmas Fair be sited, to attract new visitors and their seasonally swollen wallets?
“The savings associated with using the co-working space and meeting rooms at Matthews Yard are coming out as a favourable option at this stage to enable more money to be channelled into the tangible deliverables,” Inside Croydon was told by a COBA committee member. This may seem suitably prudent, but it seems to overlook the fact that Croydon has a vast surplus of unused, vacant shop and office space, including the nearby new council HQ, built at a cost north of £145 million, and which will be far from full occupation.
But like the Portas Fund, it is only public money after all.
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