WALTER CRONXITE reports on a town centre-changing scheme which has been kept a secret from all but just 10 of the borough’s councillors
And now, ladies and gentlemen, from the senior council figure who spent more than £1million on Surrey Street and in doing so managed to halve the number of stalls trading in Croydon’s historic market…
From the same council member who tried to introduce town centre controls which lumped innocent cyclists in with prostitutes and drug dealers…
And from the very same councillor who supported a controversial one-way system in Addiscombe, when it diverted rat-run traffic away from his own home…
… straight from Fisher’s Folly, we bring you the latest Watson Whimsy: al fresco dining outside St George’s Walk.
The council yesterday unveiled, via press release, some limited detail of its plans to pedestrianise a short section of Croydon High Street, between Park Street and Katharine Street, outside the entrance to St George’s Walk. It is an area which has broad pavements on which restaurants and bars such as Nando’s, Turtle Bay and the Milan Bar already have tables outside.
This latest bright idea, from a Labour administration rapidly running out of time before the local elections in May, is enthusiastically championed by Mark Watson, who during his time in office has stumbled from one costly failure to his next abject flop. The pedestrianisation of this stretch of road will, this entrepreneurial genius claims, boost the night time economy by encouraging al fresco dining. We shit you not.
The council hierarchy chose to make the announcement deep into August, less than a week before the summer Bank Holiday. The proposals have never been raised, discussed nor debated at any council cabinet or full council meeting, but work to shut off this section of the town centre to vehicles is due to begin “in early September”, according to the press release.
Usually, when Transport for London wants to change a bus route, even just to move a bus stop a few yards, it is required to consult the public and stakeholders. The Croydon High Street pedestrianisation will impact eight bus routes which currently use Park Street, plus the taxi rank near the corner of Katharine Street. The council may rely on an experimental traffic order to push through the bus route changes, as the public has gone unconsulted about the route changes.
And mere tax-payers are not the only ones being denied any say in the matter. Given the long summer break enjoyed by our councillors, there will not be any opportunity at the Town Hall to debate the scheme until two months after work to close off part of the town centre to traffic has begun. The road closure will be in place by October, with the next full council meeting not due to be held until the end of that month.
Some traders in the area did get a letter from the council a couple of months ago inviting them to a meeting, but consistent with Croydon Council’s usual style, there were few other efforts made to publicise the event, or the plans. Anyone who endured the underhand manner in which Watson presented his “vision” for what he regarded as “tatty” Surrey Street will be familiar with the approach.
And according to council sources contacted by Inside Croydon, the proposal was kept as a secret from all but a maximum of 10 of our elected councillors.
In principle, pedestrianisation of town centres could benefit many.
But this scheme has all the worrying hallmarks of being a Whim of Watson, and not properly thought-through.
Deliveries to shops, diners and galleries on St George’s Walk and on the High Street, already problematical because of traffic congestion, are liable to get even more difficult as buses are diverted on to the road through the 1960s shopping mall or trucks are denied access to parts of the High Street.
The town’s taxi drivers, never ones to keep their opinions quiet, are not likely to welcome having their rank shunted into the siding of Park Street, away from the Town Hall and the greatest amount of footfall.
But the road closure will not be extended to the short stretch between George Street and Park Street. So one of the borough’s newer diners, Five Guys, will never discover whether Watson’s al fresco business theory will work for them.
The changes also mean that anyone travelling, say, from the Town Hall to North End will go from a road bustling with buses, taxis and other traffic, to a pedestrianised area, then to an area with traffic and the tram lines, and then into a pedestrian area.
This mix-and-match approach in less than 200 yards of the town centre will not only affect pedestrians, but also cyclists. Yet the council announcement was entirely silent about whether the newly pedestrianised section will even allow cyclists to ride in both directions. Perhaps they hadn’t even considered the matter?
And just how will nearby businesses benefit?
There was supposed to be a report published in March on Croydon’s night-time economy, undertaken by the council’s scrutiny committee. But nearly six months later, the report is still awaited, with a suggestion from Town Hall sources that it could be about to make an appearance. Might the pedestrianisation scheme be among its recommendations?
The pedestrianised area is right outside Cash Converters, Time Bomb (a clothing store) and the outsized suppliers Big and Tall, none of which are known for their role in the night time economy or as providers of dining, whether al fresco or otherwise.
Watson’s workmen are likely to be digging up the road, with all the attendant disruption and inconvenience, just as the Rise Gallery, on St George’s Walk, is staging its high-profile Warhol exhibition and activities.
Will Rise, Watson’s and council CEO Jo Negrini’s favoured art gallery, be able to roll out exhibitions into newly pedestrianised area? Even the people at Rise don’t know, because no one has bothered to discuss it with them.
And there is the question of whether this “new public space” which Watson wants to create is even in the right place. “What’s wrong with Queen’s Gardens?” one Katharine Street source asked, perhaps already guessing the answer, “Apart from the fact that the council is allowing a private developer to build out there over a large chunk of the open space?”
It is hard to see how the new High Street public space won’t, in some way, draw business away from Surrey Street, and so further undermine Watson’s £1.2million “investment” made this year. Watson was keen on pop-up cafés and outdoor drinking, there, too.
But he does not appear to have learned any lessons from that project’s failings, for while he provided more outside space for all-day drinkers at a large pub on Surrey Street, meanwhile half the fruit and veg stalls which used to occupy the market on weekdays have quit, demoralised and abandoned by their local authority.
The council describes the High Street scheme as “part of a 12-month pilot to improve movement across the town centre and boost the night time economy”, saying that it “aims to boost footfall to and from North End”.
There’s been no mention of installing street art in the area, as yet, but as Watson’s involved, something unoriginal, derivative and costing thousands of pounds surely can’t be far away.
Money for the scheme is coming from TfL and the Mayor of London, as well as the council.
“This is an exciting plan for the town centre,” Watson gushed.
“Not only will it make it easier to move around, but it allows for al fresco dining creating a new drinking and dining experience in the town centre.”
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