Croydon Council could spend up to £7,000 of Council Tax-payers’ money this week on digging up the bollards of a single pedestrian traffic island on the High Street, only for the contractors to come back a couple of days later and re-install the same street furniture on exactly the same bit of the busy town centre road.
It’s the Croydon CycleFest later this week, and according to a Freedom of Information response to Inside Croydon, it costs the council £7,000 to dig up a traffic island, fill in the hole, smooth the road surface and then dig it all up again and re-install the bollards. That’s what was done last year by our council on at least one site on the one-mile bike race course around the centre of town.
And that’s just one small example of the costs of paying for the annual cycling event, a vanity project for council leader Tony Newman which is estimated will have cost our hard-pressed borough at least £300,000 since 2015.
The event, which this year includes a couple of pro races in the midst of a day’s cycling activities, is part of a 10-race criterium series organised by a company called Sweet Spot.
In Croydon, at least, Sweet Spot doesn’t pay for the use of the local roads or any kind of “facility fee” to the council for allowing them to fulfill the company’s commitments to its own sponsors and television companies. Instead, it is Croydon Council that pays Sweet Spot to bring the event to the town centre, which Newman and his cronies reckon, in typically clichéd fashion, “puts Croydon on the map” (check it out, guys: the place has been on maps since the Domesday Book).
Sources in the sports promotion business suggest that Sweet Spot could be receiving the thick end of £1million from local authorities around the country for the “privilege” of bringing their event to town.
“I wish we could operate a business model like Sweet Spot’s,” one local business figure told Inside Croydon today.
In 2015, the first year Croydon hosted the bike race, the council initially admitted that it had paid £150,000 to the event organisers. Later, they adjusted their public position to try to claim that all the fees it paid had been covered by sponsorship.
This has been the line that Newman and the council has taken ever since, though it is difficult to see quite how that all stacks up when the small list of sponsors for the Croydon race are considered.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with bringing significant sporting and other events to the streets of the town centre, a savvy local authority would make sure someone else pays for it. There are serious questions over the misjudgement of the council’s leadership in deciding to fund the major part of this from the public purse, and their failure to find substantial commercial backers to underwrite the event.
This year, managing the event and its sponsorships has been taken “in-house” by the council, out of the hands of low-rent local PR agency, Grey Label.
That has probably saved some costs, but it has had little immediate impact on the number of sponsors backing the event. Five sponsors are listed, and they include the council itself and a council-run agency.
None of the “major players” in Croydon’s redevelopment have signed up as sponsors. There’s no sign of Hammerson, Westfield or their development vehicle, the Croydon Partnership, and none of the other property speculators have dipped into their promotion budgets for this event, either.
Willmott Dixon, the construction firm which gets a hefty chunk of the council’s public building contracts, are suggested to be the “title sponsors”, though the publicity issued so far does not appear to reflect this.
Inside Croydon understands that the council was offering additional sponsor “packages” graded as gold, silver and bronze, for which commercial backers would pay £20,000, £10,000 or £5,000. At least one of the five sponsors is understood to have paid no cash, but instead offered services in kind.
That suggests that the maximum income received from non-council sponsors this year might be £40,000 – potentially leaving a big short-fall between sponsor income and the fees that the council has to pay to Sweet Spot.
Road works to make the surface suitable for the bike racers, barriers around the course and all other costs are likely, then, to fall to Croydon Council – and Croydon’s Council Tax-payers.
That will include a load of old bollards.
On the High Street, south of the Flyover, one pedestrian traffic island had to be removed from the road last year so that the cycle racers would not have to swerve around it at top speed near the start-finish area.
Croydon Council was reluctant to provide a straight answer to the question of how much this cost. But a persistent Freedom of Information request eventually drew this response: “The Council will not be releasing this information to you as we believe it is exempt from disclosure under the exception in the Environmental Regulations 12(5)(e) relating to confidentiality provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest. The information is considered, by the Council, to be commercially sensitive as its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of the of Council.
“However, for undertaking such activity the average costs are between £2.5k – £3.5k.”
Which suggests that digging out a traffic island and putting it back in just a few days later could have cost £7,000. Or about a fiver for every person that bothered to turn out on the streets of Croydon last year for the poorly attended cycle races.
It would be fair to say that despite throwing considerable amounts of cash at promoting the event, through the council’s own publicity and distributing more than 10,000 leaflets in the town centre in the fortnight before this year’s race, the CycleFest has yet to catch local people’s imagination.
In the first two years, Croydon Council has avoided getting an independent cost-benefit analysis of the staging of the Croydon CycleFest, preferring instead to rely on the attendance estimates provided by race organisers Sweet Spot, who of course have nothing to gain whatsoever by exaggerating the number of people turning out to see their event.
There’s another snag, too.
This year, Newman and his mates who on Thursday night will be enjoying the “hospitality” at the VIP tent, might not even get to enjoy their own moment in the spotlight, glad-handing with the race winners for the benefit of the TV cameras at the victory presentations.
The snap General Election means that the 2017 Croydon CycleFest falls slap bang in the middle of the purdah period, when the council must avoid even the hint of spending any public money which might favour one political party over another.
Council CEO Jo Negrini has been selectively strict on this point so far, staging extra, highly politicised planning meetings, while cancelling cabinet meetings and other activities for our elected representatives.
So, by her own rulings, Negrini could be risking the integrity of three constituency elections if, on Thursday, she allows Newman and a succession of his Labour Party colleagues to troop on to the stage to hand out the medals.
Though of course, Negrini and Newman could argue that as the crowds that turn up are so small, no one will notice anyway.
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