M.T. WALLETTE, our shopping correspondent, bolstered the numbers attending Councillor Mark Watson’s cosy little soiree on Surrey Street on Saturday, when even the offer of free drinks couldn’t pull in the crowds
It was a fitting metaphor for the whole wretched exercise, in the opinion of some increasingly frustrated market traders and angered local residents.
There, at the southern entrance to Surrey Street Market, in mid-afternoon while the hard-working traders who were trying to earn a living were being forced to pack up their businesses early, the council had parked up a rubbish truck.
It was full of crap. And it stank.
And not so far away, there was a bloke on the fiddle. How apt.
No one on the market had quite believed the rumour earlier in the week that this was how Councillor Mark Watson, the “small business champion” at Croydon Town Hall, intended to block off the street to vehicles, all for his little shindig to “celebrate” (Watson’s words) the re-opening of the street after he had spent £1.1million of public money on some resurfacing work and a few baubles of “street art”.
Some have wondered whether Watson and other council officials managed to obtain any proper permissions to close off the road. Certainly, the smelly rubbish truck was effective in stopping motor traffic, though judging by the pathetic attendance at Watson’s little party, the stink must have driven people away.
But then, all in all, the whole Surrey Street exercise from Watson has had a whiff of something not quite right from the start.
Perhaps if Watson had listened to the market traders 18 months ago and made sure there was some proper signage, in keeping with the history and heritage of the 700-year-old market, helping to direct people to its value-for-money offer of good, wholesome fruit and veg, more people might have turned up.
As it was, it was all a bit of a damp squib.
The traders are increasingly worried for their livelihoods after what they see as a huge waste of public money, a missed opportunity, and the council continuing to ignore their concerns.
There were 29 stalls trading on Saturday, which was up by three from the previous week.
That’s still around half as many stalls as were operating on Surrey Street in March, before Watson’s enforced 10-week closure for a resurfacing exercise which the council’s own architecture and design experts have questioned whether it was necessary.
“Today was the worst day’s trading since we’ve come back,” one stall-holder complained on Saturday, annoyed that he was having to pack away more than an hour earlier than usual in order to make way for Watson’s “celebration”.
But this celebration had more the look of a wake.
“Would you like a cotton shopping bag?” a young woman who had been paid to be there offered, hopefully, to passers-by.
“Here, take two.” You could hear the pleading in her voice, as if she’d been ordered to stay until she had got rid of the job lot.
Watson and another of the council’s controlling clique, Councillor Alison Butler, comprised one-third of the audience for the geezer with the fiddle. Most of the public passing by on the High Street gave this harbinger of Watson’s gentrification barely a second glance.
But then, Saturday’s event was never really for the traders, shoppers, local residents or the other people of Croydon who pay Watson, Butler and Newman’s generous council “allowances”. This was all about burnishing Croydon’s ruling cabal’s political reputations, or providing something – anything – to justify that “Delivering for Croydon” line on the side of the Town Hall headed notepaper, with local elections just 11 months away.
It was Watson who, before the works took place, told the public that he thought the market looked “tatty”.
But just what Watson and Co have actually delivered for £1.1million on Surrey Street remains a matter of some dispute.
There’s a couple of pieces of what Watson seems to believe is “street art”, one of which looks as if it has got jammed under the walkway over the market. Then there’s the derivative boy with a hand grenade copy.
Watson is reckoned to have splashed at least £15,000 of Council Tax cash on just these two pieces.
But there’s no art on the market which is what might be called original, or which has much of a reference to the local area’s surroundings or the market’s heritage, nor anything original that has been commissioned from a young, local artist.
There’s some signage positioned above the market, but not the ironwork arches which had been requested and, most believed, had been promised by Watson that would be delivered.
Instead, what we have is something that appears to be an exercise in poor design. There’s some flimsy looking street signs which look as if they’ve been fashioned out of wire coat hangers as part of a Year 6 craft project. And, against the advice of the council’s Place Review Panel, these signs have been positioned at roof level, where people are least likely to notice them.
But what the public is already noticing, when they look downwards, is the latest triumph for style over substance, and all at public expense. Just a fortnight after the market has re-opened, the expensively laid new paving surfaces are already looking stained and grubby.
“It’s simply not fit for purpose,” one stall-holder said. “The surface is awful. It isn’t fit for a market. WE told them that. But they wouldn’t listen to the traders.”
Inside Croydon’s loyal reader (the one who did bother turning up for Councillor Watson’s triumphant unveiling of all his “improvements”), was bitterly disappointed by the party – a state of mind probably not helped by the fact that they had missed the free drinks being offered earlier in the afternoon in the Dog and Bull, possibly in an attempt to put people in the right frame of mind before listening to an address from Councillor Watson himself.
Having arrived at 5.15pm, our reader abandoned Watson’s party within half an hour.
“It seemed little there was little more there than a one-piece orchestra. Even Mark was looking bored with the event. Maybe I missed the Mayor or whoever opened the show at 4pm, and an hour later all the drinks and food had been snapped up by the crowds?
“Did I say ‘crowds’?
“Well, some of the stalls at the other end of Surrey Street were still doing a brisk trade in fruit and veg and some real bargains were available. Half a market doing a good trade is better than no market, that is if you can find the place from North End.
“But there seemed to me to be more event organisers in their yellow hi-viz vests than there were members of the public present.”
Our secret shopper might have given up, but Watson was there until the bitter end, with the emphasis on the word “bitter” judging by the councillor’s demeanour.
He was seen sitting outside the “pop-up” fish and chip shop, and he was last seen after 9pm, wearing his new Surrey Street T-shirt (paid for at public expense, perhaps?) sitting outside a pub in what is supposed to be a controlled drinking zone.
Or perhaps those rules don’t apply to councillors who are at liberty to spend thousands of pounds of public money, after excluding the public from those decisions and choices?
It does need to be put on record, however, that by this late hour, the fiddler had long gone.
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