Croydon’s Portas Pilot scheme, which saw the historic Surrey Street Market granted £100,000 of government money a year ago, is spending nearly £16,000 of that cash to stage a handful of baking competitions and to “improve” Exchange Square.
Inside Croydon obtained the spending details through a Freedom of Information request.
The Portas Pilot projects across the country were launched by the government as an attempt to revitalise failing high streets, where independent shops have struggled for survival against the twin assault of the recession and competition from the major supermarkets. In total, more than £2.5million of public money was allocated by Whitehall to 27 schemes, including Surrey Street in Croydon.
Nationally, the scheme has come in for criticism for the way in which the money was allocated, with claims that there has been undue influence from TV production companies working with Mary Portas, Channel 4’s “Queen of the High Street”. Croydon was one of the towns which Portas’s TV company stated that they wanted among the grant recipients.
Some of the committees of local volunteers, the Town Teams, have been in dispute with Portas, as the demands of making “good telly” proved to be at odds with the views of the market traders. Portas Pilots in some towns have been criticised for their slow rate of progress, while others have been accused of wasting public money.
In Croydon, progress has been glacially slow. The Easter 2013 deadline in the business plan has been and gone, apparently all the fault of the council, if one of the Town Team’s directors is to be believed.
But what the Town Team has managed to do is allocate up to £8,500 – nearly one-tenth of its grant from government – on a marquee and ovens, “for promotional activities”, according to Croydon Council, so that a few people can show-off their baking skills.
A case of Mary, Queen of Shops, saying: “Let them bake cake”?
Another £7,200 has been earmarked for improvements – “creating a community hub” – in privately owned Exchange Square. Exchange Square and the baking competitions are sited close to the Matthew’s Yard coffee shop, whose sole proprietor is Saif Bonar. Bonar was one of the original members of the Croydon Town Team when it was established last year, though he later stood down.
According to Croydon Council’s FoI response, when asked how much was to be spent on cake baking competitions, they said, “£8,500 has been allocated to spend on promotional activities such as Xmas [sic], Valentines Day, Easter and key dates as a route to increase footfall and retail sales in the area”. One of the organisers confirmed to Inside Croydon that for the bake-off, the Town Team “sponsored” the provision of a marquee and the competition ovens.
That apparent generosity with public money does not compare very well with what is to be spent on assisting all of the other, longer established market traders and shop-owners on Surrey Street and Church Street who are struggling to keep their businesses alive: a grand total of £30,425, or less than one-third of the original grant, has been allocated there. Crumbs from the cake-bakers’ table?
Although the Town Team’s business plan originally called for the appointment of a management company to run the market – in place of the council-appointed market manager – last month it advertised for a “co-ordinator”, offering up to £13,104 per year for working a 24-hour week on a one-year contract.
Applicants were invited to submit their CVs to Rob Campbell, one of the directors of the newly registered Town Team CIC, and who is employed as the street operations manager at Croydon BID, the organisation of big businesses, mostly based in Centrale and the Whitgift Centre, which dominate the town centre.
The “Great Croydon Bake-Off” – itself a dull idea unimaginatively copied from another television format – had its second outing last weekend, with claims that it attracted a few hundred visitors.
The event is run by a Matthew’s Yard devotee, “Christo” Matthews. Matthews describes himself as an “idea [sic] cauldron”; he is also a member of the “I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher” Facebook group.
Last week’s event was warmly welcomed by local Conservative party politicians (“Croydon Bake-Off has the recipe for our town’s success”, gushed one), including MP Gavin Barwell and Councillor Clare Hilley, someone who has had her own memories of sick-making “reality telly”.
But it is questionable whether the bake-off has improved trade for Surrey Street and Church Street businesses, where some established market traders have complained of seeing few, if any, benefits of the Portas Pilot.
As well as being next door to the site of the baking competition, the privately owned Matthew’s Yard is given as the registered address for “Croydon Old Town Portas Team CIC” since it was incorporated on March 25 this year. According to Croydon Council, £2,000 has been allocated from the Portas money for renting office space over two years. It appears likely that the new market co-ordinator could be based in … Matthew’s Yard. At favourable rates, of course.
Last September, Inside Croydon highlighted the original spending plan for the Portas Project in Croydon, which budgeted £30,000 from the total grant on administration and the hire of office space. After Inside Croydon’s report, the Town Team reduced the budgeted amount for administration to £17,732 (according to the council’s FoI response).
By last month, even before the co-ordinator had been appointed, the Town Team had spent £7,826.65 on admin and the formation of its Community Interest Company – CIC.
The Town Team has also forked out nearly £5,000 on paint for a pedestrian underpass that is not even in the area that was subject of the bid – or “as a main route into Old Town”, according to the council.
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- Mary Portas show lobbied government officials (guardian.co.uk)
- Mary Portas fails to visit centres chosen for retail revival pilot scheme (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘Portas Pilots’ high street update to be delayed (independent.co.uk)