Some traders and residents based in or around Surrey Street are beginning to question whether Croydon Council is steamrollering them into a future for the 700-year-old market which few, if any, of them want or are happy with.Mark Watson, the cabinet member for economy and jobs in the Labour-run council, issued a letter to residents and traders last week which outlined plans for the £500,000 spend on the street market.
This sudden largesse was revealed by the cash-strapped local authority, apparently in response to existing traders in the borough questioning why their council had managed to find the money to make a £3 million loan to attract Boozepark to the town centre, while many of their businesses were struggling after six years of austerity and decades of under-investment in Croydon.
The area around Surrey Street has been operating as a market place since it was first granted a charter in 1276. Its more recent history has been that of steady decline, with fewer than half the pitches being occupied regularly (according to the council’s own figures, there’s just 40 per cent occupancy), and the variety of products on sale along the street also much reduced, with the “pound-a-bowl” fruit and veg stalls concentrated at the northern end of the street.
The most recent, previous effort to revive the market’s fortunes came via the television shopping expert, Mary Portas, and £100,000-worth of government money. Street traders and shop owners along Surrey Street relate that they saw no benefits from the Portas Pilot effort, as the money was spent on over-priced underpass murals and pretentious and derivative cake-baking competitions held away from the street itself.
The early signs for the latest council initiative are not good for existing businesses, either: plans to allowing trading in Surrey Street on Sundays, due to begin next month, is deliberately excluding long-standing stall-holders and traders, apparently for not being “trendy” enough for Watson’s vision of the future.
In his latest letter, Watson announces “a unique opportunity to create a vibrant public space and increase footfall, particularly by introducing early evening and Sunday trading, whilst at the same time making sure that the market’s unique character and history are protected”.
Watson lists a number of improvements to the market which, he says, were raised at a meeting held in March for “local people and traders”.
Among the proposals, Watson lists “improved lighting; better signage to the market; improved market layout; improved stalls; Sunday market”. Watson claims in his letter that this was the result of “feedback” from his meeting.
But existing traders, and some residents who live close to the daily buzz of a once thriving London street market, dispute that any of them sought to introduce Sunday trading.
“Why would we ask for something that we are not allowed to be part of?” one stall-holder told Inside Croydon this week. “It’s typical council cobblers.
“They’ve tried a Sunday market before, and it never worked then, but just caused more disruption for the residents nearby and more mess, which the council’s contractors have never handled very well.
“Councillor Watson’s meeting was for market traders, and was called with barely 48 hours’ notice. A lot of us never knew about it or couldn’t make it at such short notice. We would have certainly told him what we really think if we had been there.”
There is growing concern among some traders that they may be forced off the market, perhaps through rent rises, as the council seeks to “gentrify” the street market by bringing in more “artesan”-style stalls. The manner in which the Progress-led council in Lambeth has helped to evict long-standing traders in Brixton Market was mentioned.
A second consultation meeting which Watson had promised to hold, intended for residents, has never taken place. Residents’ priorities tend to differ from the traders, according to one interviewee who lives nearby: “There’s poor quality street cleaning after the market, with rats and bad smells, and there’s fly-tipping, too. The poor lighting makes the place unsafe at night time.“None of that is going to be helped if we now have an extra day’s market trading, with different traders, unless the street-cleaning contractors work more and work better than they have been doing,” said the resident.
Another trader we spoke to said, “So who was it that suggested the Sunday market? No one knows, because nearly six months later, they have still not bothered to produce any record of the meeting for those of us who they excluded by not given us fair notice. It’s another Croydon Council ‘consultation’, where they tell us what they want to do, and we have to like it or lump it.”
In his letter, Watson goes on to outline the “hugely exciting” PrideFest planned for Bank Holiday Sunday, which “celebrates the local LGBT+ community”, when there is promised to be 30 stalls providing acoustic music, craft beers (the local pubs will be delighted at that, of course), cocktails and family entertainment. And Surrey Street will be closed from 8am to 10pm.
We asked one long-term stall-holder if he was “hugely excited” about Sunday’s event. They appeared underwhelmed: “Yeah. I get the day off. And the Monday, too. It’ll be the only proper weekend off I will get between now and Christmas.”
So would they be coming along to PrideFest to see its impact on reviving Surrey Street?
“PrideFest?” the market trader said. “What’s that?”
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