Let them bake cake: Croydon Portas team’s £16,000 spend

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.

"Christo" Matthews, the organiser of the bake-off event, which Croydon's Portas team is "sponsoring" with up to £8,500 of public money

Crumbs: “Christo” Matthews, organiser of the bake-off event, which Croydon’s Portas team is generously “sponsoring” with up to £8,500 of our money

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.

Marquee event: there are plans for at least another two bake-off events in the tent outside Matthew's Yard

Marquee event: there are plans for at least another two bake-off events this year outside Matthew’s Yard

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.

  • What’s your view on how the Portas Pilot money is being spent in Croydon? Post your comments below.
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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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5 Responses to Let them bake cake: Croydon Portas team’s £16,000 spend

  1. An obscene waste of public funds used to further the interests of a few individuals and private businesses. Well done to Inside Croydon for uncovering the truth. Shocking!

  2. Cake for a mad hatter’s tea party, no doubt.

    What a monumental waste of time and money. Mary Portas has no idea how to revive secondary and tertiary shopping streets, as she is proving week-by-week in her lacklustre Channel 4 television series, Mary Queen of the High Street. In Ms Portas’ defence, neither has anyone else.

    If Surrey Street traders are lucky they will be invited to occupy pitches in the new Hammersfield Croydon Central shopping complex – to give the place some ‘street cred’. The more business-like among them will accept with alacrity, even if they have to pay more rent. The rest will become even more of a retailing footnote than they are at the moment.

    Surrey Street is the site of a former Croydon brewery. Would it be unkind to ask what, if anything, these people are capable of organising there?

  3. The Portas Review of the High Street suggested 28 things that could be done to improve the High Street (http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/BISCore/business-sectors/docs/p/11-1434-portas-review-future-of-high-streets.pdf) .

    Under all the PR stuff were some really key issues that Croydon really does need to address:

    1.”Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table”

    In Croydon we need one consistent system that is applied throughout the Borough, we have a crazy system now which discriminates against some areas like South End with no free parking and massively favours other areas that have 30 minutes to an hour free parking so people can pop in and out of shops.

    It is particularly difficult for South End stores because the food outlets need to load cars with platters of food for outside catering, whilst the music, cycling, DIY stores often have bulky deliveries and sales. We have fabulous independent stores. Why are we not encouraging them?

    2. “Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own….”

    Portas recognised that betting shops etc create a different atmosphere on a high street in December 2011. Why then are we fighting against their rapid expansion in 2013? When the residents complain, we get no support or objections to expansion of these businesses by either the Police or the Council. This is a vital step to stop the high streets becoming no-go areas.

    3. “Encourage a contract of care between landlords and their commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code and supporting the use of lease structures other than upward only rent reviews, especially for small businesses.”

    “Explore further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant”

    “Local authorities should make more proactive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to encourage the redevelopment of key high street retail space”

    “Empower local authorities to step in when landlords are negligent with new ‘Empty Shop
    Management Orders'”

    “Introduce a public register of high street landlords.”

    Walk around Croydon and look at the state of empty shop units. If you try to find out who owns them and get to the bottom of the problem it is an expensive business.

    If you talk to shopkeepers who rent, there are stories of threats and intimidation from some landlords and their agents.

    If you try to get the landlords to improve premises so they are fit to let, it is a long process.

    Croydon actually has very few big landowners: if we really want to improve the future of business for Croydon retailers, we need to take a proactive role. Surely the landlords do not need legislation to get to grips with their own properties?

    So let’s start focusing on the fundamental changes that really will change the economic fundamentals of Croydon’s economic environment.

  4. crrrrr2013 says:

    I occasionally drop into Matthews Yard, but am not a member, and have no vested interests. IMHO its a great concept, and would be very glad for it to succeed.

    To get to the point – I, to my surprise stumbled onto the great bake off; it created something off a small buzz in the immediate area when I was there, despite the obviously lame-ish nature of the concept. Mathews Yard was doing a good trade. If it was voluntary affair, or something funded out of Matthews Yards funds fair enough. All power to them I thought at the time.

    But to find out that is was state funded, and the rest, well…if that money could be used to tidy up the square itself and turn the old water works castle (sic) into something less haunted, and then to use that space and the courtyard as a performance space – if not an extended market place, “piazza”, which in turn might see the vacant retail space in the area being used for real trattorias rather than the painted versions…ad infinitum,etc etc.

    I gather you will be able to give me a thousand reasons and vested interests why that won’t happen.

  5. Charlotte: At the risk of seeming boorish, could I drag you and your South Croydon shopkeepers back into the real world?

    1. There is no such thing as free parking. Either the retailer pays for it, individually as supermarkets do, or collectively, like the tenants of a shopping complex.

    Or it is provided by the local authority, which sacrifices parking revenue it would otherwise raise. Cash-strapped Croydon Council is unlikely to forego possible revenue.

    2. A betting shop or a charity shop is infinitely preferable to an empty shop. There are too many secondary and tertiary retail premises in Greater London, but everybody wants it to be someone else’s parade that is redeveloped. Making it more difficult for landlords to let premises is a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas.

    3. Landlords are more likely to undertake renovation and repair if they can justify the expenditure in terms of additional revenue from rent. Tenants who demand better facilities are often those who complain most vociferously about rent increases.

    By all means let’s tax landlords with empty premises, but remember that will increase lobbying for a change in the law to make it easier to develop shopping parades for non-retailing uses. And that, in turn, will mean evicting some retailers who have otherwise viable businesses.

    Unfortunately for you, the retailing tide is not running in your direction. Robert Noel, group chief executive of Land Securities, told a recent private lunch at London Chamber of Commerce that consumer behaviour is changing further and faster than anyone could have imagined even ten years ago.

    He said: “People are going to shops less often, but spending longer once they are there. This means that dominant locations with the ability to provide choice and entertainment are winning.”

    In that respect, please may I draw your attention to the £1.5 billion Hammerson & Westfield development planned for central Croydon, to which both major political parties on Croydon Council are firmly committed.

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