Above is the scene in Surrey Street Market in early afternoon yesterday, Wednesday January 3, 2018.
It is about six months since the council, in a plan pushed through by the soon-to-be-ex councillor Mark Watson, spent £1.2million, on “upgrading” the market street. Previously, Watson had described the authentic, cheap but wholesome produce street market in Surrey Street as “tatty”.
Before Watson’s enforced three-month closure of Surrey Street Market, there were regularly more than 50 stalls trading along the street. Even after a steady decline for a decade, until last March, on good days around 70 stalls could be trading along the whole length of the street.
Yesterday afternoon, you could count the stalls on the fingers of one hand.
The market is described by Croydon Council as, “historic” and “one of the oldest markets in Britain, trading since 1276. It operates seven days a week, selling a range of items, including fresh produce, fruit and vegetables Monday to Saturday”.
“Surrey Street,” the council website says, “has a great atmosphere and is bursting with independent traders, street food, homemade and artisan produce, arts and crafts. The market has recently been refurbished to help create a vibrant, pedestrian friendly zone, making it a great destination for shopping and relaxing in the heart of Croydon.”
Why was the scene in Surrey Street yesterday significant?
Because yesterday saw the launch of another Mark Watson “initiative”, what the council announced as “the inaugural Croydon Year for Business”.
The council – yep, the same bunch of people who have made such a bang-up job of Surrey Street – say that, “Croydon Means Business 2018 aims to support and encourage the growth of local businesses and inspire further innovation among the borough’s business community”. They don’t mention the 50-plus small businesses who used to trade on Surrey Street Market, but hey…
“Over the coming year, the council and the Croydon Business Network will deliver a programme of events that aim to help Croydon’s businesses continue to develop and grow, creating new job opportunities for local people and boosting the local economy.”
Much like they said that spending £1.2million on “tatty” Surrey Street would achieve.
“The year will continue the legacy of the council’s work with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the borough, which follows the work of the Small Business Commission last year.”
Or as one business manager working in Surrey Street told Inside Croydon over Christmas, “The arrival of Mark Watson to ‘help’ business is about as welcome as the sight of the Grim Reaper at an old people’s home.”
Of course, Surrey Street is not the only example in Croydon where businesses are struggling. Stagnant office vacancy rates suggest that other business sectors, outside retail, are hardly thriving, while high street banks continue in their policy of branch closures across the borough, and the country as a whole, another aspect of the sad, and slow, death of many high streets.
The inaptly named “Restaurant Quarter”, half a mile away in South End, now has a slew of empty and abandoned shops, bars and ex-restaurants, despite the council – when under Tory control – spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a bit of paving and to tart-up properties, many of which are owned by the borough’s biggest landlord, the wealthy Whitgift Foundation.
Elsewhere, after a £3million sweetheart loan deal from the council, even Boozepark is shedding food outlets. Despite the financial leg-up the venue was given by the council, to the disbenefit of many existing and established town centre traders, business there is struggling under the burden of rates, rising bills, reducing margins and the general downturn in the economy which sees the public having less disposable income.
And in Croydon town centre, there’s the seemingly never-ending development blight caused by Hammersfield, the £1.4billion shopping mall redevelopment by Westfield and Hammerson, which has over-shadowed all other business interests in the borough for six years now, and where building work is still not due to begin on the ageing Whitgift Centre until 2019.
None of this was mentioned in yesterday’s press release from Croydon Council.
Instead, they spewed forth some re-hashed empty phrases, such as “an action plan for delivery”, “cross-organisational working”, and “unleash Croydon’s growth potential”.
Nor did the council press release mention Councillor Watson’s extensive business expertise… probably because he doesn’t have any.
A former civil servant who lost his Home Office job when he fraudulently issued a visa to a friend, Watson has most recently been running an “ethical travel” charity, as a part-time executive director from an office address in central Croydon.
In the past four years, Tourism Concern, with Watson in charge, has seen its income more than halved, from £158,644 in 2013 to £72,288 in 2017, according to the most recent set of figures filed with the Charity Commission.
In its annual report, Tourism Concern describes 2016-2017 as “a difficult year for us”.
“As expected, income didn’t materialise, and we made a loss of £16,500, which meant we had to use some of our reserves…. savings have been found by reducing running costs,” the report states.
Undaunted, yesterday Tourism Concern’s part-time executive director, while jauntily wearing his Croydon Council cabinet member’s hat, was telling business operators in the borough that, “Businesses have a vital role in the local economy…” no shit, Sherlock.
“… and I hope this year-long programme will help to increase business pride in the area, further our engagement with local businesses and improve business confidence in the borough.”
Businesses of Croydon may be interested to note that Mark Watson is standing down as a councillor in May, something which, of itself, should do a great deal to “improve business confidence in the borough”.
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