The future of Surrey Street Market, if it is to have a future at all, may be determined over the next three months, after the council announced yesterday that the regular stall-holders will be displaced to North End for 10 weeks when carriageway works begin.
Typically of so much of the non-consultation “consultation” conducted by the council on this scheme, which is being driven by Councillor Mark Watson, details of the start of the works were announced by council press release, before traders and affected residents received any notification of the confirmed dates for what will be more than two months of disruption, with works going on late into the nights and throughout weekends.
“So that’s noisy works every Saturday and Sunday then?” one concerned local said.
“Why the hell has this come out as a press release before residents living on the street were informed?”
And even before the works begin, there appears to be a suggestion of slippage in the time they will take. With works due to start on March 27, the press release states: “Council contractors are due to be on site for 10 weeks, with the project completing in early June.”
That “early June” appears deliberately vague, and masks the possibility of delays well beyond the June 1 completion which was demanded by council leader Tony Newman so that his Labour group might actually have something to show as actually having been “delivered”.
But with long-term stall-holders having continued to drift away from Surrey Street by the week, the uncertainty extends to whether any might return after Watson’s “street scene” works are completed. “Some market stalls will temporarily relocate to North End while the works are carried out, to enable the improvements to be done as safely and as quickly as possible,” the council announced.
“Market traders will begin operating from North End from Monday 27 March. The relocation will initially be run as a trial and if it is found to be unsuccessful, the market will be moved to an alternative location within the town centre.” This alternative location is not specified by the council, though Watson’s attempts to move the stalls into Exchange Square has so far been rejected, both by the traders – who fear the lack of footfall – and by the lease-holders of nearby residential buildings.
Nor does the council appear to want to contemplate that the North End “trial” might be successful: there’s every chance that, with the benefit of trading in the pedestrian zone of the busiest part of the town centre for 10 weeks, some stall-holders may never want to return to Surrey Street, and opt to leave it to Watson’s pop-up bars and neon lighting.
The council’s announcement states: “While there will be disruptions to vehicular access on to Surrey Street, access for businesses and residents will be maintained at all times.
“Contractors will be working at the site for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, although noisy activities have been restricted and will only be permitted between 8am and 6pm.” So that’s alright then.
Given that Watson went ahead and spent £10,000 on a piece of street art that no one wanted and fewer people admire, while at the same time claiming to be consulting the people who work and live on Surrey Street, such council undertakings may count for little.
That the project is being undertaken on a very tight schedule is confirmed, though, by the 10-hour days and weekend working, all doubtless being conducted at expensive overtime rates for the contractors.
The council says that the works will include “new improved surface materials, a more levelled carriageway…” “more levellled”? Like being a little bit pregnant? “… new street lighting and the creation of a more pedestrian-friendly environment, to improve the street scene and create a vibrant, flexible market space”.
Watson calls it all “an aggressive programme of works”, and says that the contractors will be “working around the clock to deliver the scheme as quickly as possible and keep the length of time the market is closed to an absolute minimum”. No guarantees of being finished by the first week of June, though.
The councillor who has described Surrey Street as “tatty” went on to say: “I am also pleased we have been able to accommodate those who wanted to continue trading for the duration of the works on North End and look forward to the reopening of a modern, upgraded and lively Surrey Street Market.”
More than 700 years after Surrey Street was first granted a royal licence to operate as a market, Watson carries an onerous responsibility to ensure that his street works prove more successful in reviving the fortunes of the area than his Sunday market flop has been so far.
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