The closure of Croydon High Street, between Park Street and Katharine Street, imposed on the town centre in October after only the briefest of “consultations”, is intended to be permanent, according to correspondence obtained by Inside Croydon.
When it was announced in the summer by Mark Watson, the council cabinet member supposedly responsible for business, the public was told that the closure would only be for a trial period.
And since the road closure, business managers report that there has been a downturn in trade for the bars, restaurants and shops along this stretch of Croydon High Street.
Watson is the soon-to-be-ex Labour councillor who managed to spend £1.2million of public money on Surrey Street earlier this year and in the process drove away around a half of the historic street market’s stalls. Much of the complaints about Watson’s handling of the Surrey Street works was the high-handed and patronising nature of what passed for “public consultation”.
The latest FoI responses obtained from Croydon Council and Transport for London show that Watson’s High Street closure was also decided with barely any consultation with the shops, bars and restaurants along that stretch of road, virtually no discussion with Transport for London, and without ever bothering to ask the public for their thoughts.
This is what has become known among Town Hall sources as a “Watson whim”.
The stretch of road has now been closed for three months, forcing buses to be re-routed and the town centre black cab rank re-located, to the inconvenience of many, and the advantage of… well, no one really.
The harsh reality is that this latest Watson whim is, yet again, costing local businesses money and is being achieved at (unspecified) public expense.
We spoke to restaurant and bar managers and shop owners in the immediate area and they report a downturn in takings between the October road closure and the start of their Christmas season. Most feel that, while it is not all attributed to the road closure, it has had some negative impact on their businesses.
Indeed, Watson unwittingly demonstrated this himself when out on the town with a close mate last week. The self-regarding selfie posted on social media showed the scene in the Dice Bar behind the gruesome twosome to be largely empty of punters – perhaps Watson and his gormless mate had scared them off?
It is clear from documents and correspondence obtained through FoI that Croydon Council and its contractors were pushing through the High Street closure scheme in a helluva rush.
And what the council passed off as a “consultation” was actually the council telling local traders being what was about to be done to them.
In a presentation prepared for TfL on behalf of the council by consultants Project Centre and dated July 26 – just weeks before the town centre thoroughfare was closed to traffic – it gives the quick-fire schedule as “Consultations – June 2017”, “Detail design – July 2017” and “Construction works – August 2017”.
The FoI response from TfL also underlines the rushed nature of what passed for consultation. “Three meetings have been attended by TfL officers in relation to this scheme,” TfL wrote to Inside Croydon. These meetings, we are told, were unminuted.
“Monday 26 June – Business Stakeholder Forum hosted by Croydon Council; Friday 4 August – a meeting hosted by TfL with officers from the Council and their consultants to discuss the scheme more widely; Tuesday 12 September – a site visit with TfL Bus Operations, Council officers, and the appointed consultants.”
That means that the first site visit by TfL to consider the council’s requested bus route and other changes happened barely a fortnight before the road closure was imposed.
The document was also used for presentations to Croydon BID and for a meeting of local businesses in June, by invitation. One such lip-service to consultation event staged by the council was so poorly advertised that only three people turned up.
In the council’s presentation document (which can be viewed as a pdf by clicking here), it refers to the street closure as a “medium-term solution prior to redevelopment of St George’s Walk”.
Among those businesses currently based in St George’s Walk who might have something to gain by the pedestrianisation of the High Street is the Rise Gallery, run by Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison – the art dealer to whom Watson handed over a significant budget for “public art” on Surrey Street, and who has been a regular companion to council CEO Jo Negrini at various events pitching the delights of Croydon to international property speculators.
Croydon Council appeared reluctant to provide any answers to our FoI request about its “consultation” over the High Street closure.
It took them more than two months – double the legal time limit for responses – to provide answers to straightforward matters of fact.
In its FoI response, Croydon Council detailed the number of meetings it has staged to inform and “consult” the businesses and residents affected by the road closure.
And according to the council response, its first public consultation on the road closure was not until June 2017 – less than three months before the council went ahead and closed the road.
The rushed nature of the proposals is confirmed by some of the correspondence between TfL and the council’s contractors.
“The timescales for the closure are ambitious – early September which I understand are [sic] challenging,” wrote Scott Lester, the regional director for council consultants Project Centre, on July 26.
“Would be good to have a quick chat about this project and your involvement with buses to date,” a TfL official wrote in another email sent on the same date as the presentation. “I’m trying to ensure there is no delay from TfL on this one and not everyone from buses seems to be on the same page!”
What could they have meant?
In an email to TfL in June, Lester had made the council’s true intentions clear: “The High Street closure will be permanent,” he wrote.
It was not until correspondence in September that any mention of traffic flow monitoring was even mentioned by the council consultants.
The change of bus routes at short notice was achieved by “Experimental Closure proposed for 7th October under an experimental Traffic Regulation Order Section 9 for 6 months”. That experimental closure and bus route changes can then be extended at a later date.
“If conditions for bus passengers deteriorate, LB Croydon will re-consider and will work with TfL to introduce mitigation,” Lester wrote, “however, the High Street Closure is widely supported and there is significant political support from Local Councillors.”
No evidence for this support from the public or councillors was forthcoming in the correspondence.
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