Council’s £6.8m bus shelter deal with 9-month-old tech firm

There’s good news for any Croydon bus passengers who during this week’s stormy weather have been battered and rained on while waiting for their transport at bus stops without their usual shelters. Inevitably, though, this being Croydon, there’s some bad news, too.

Some passengers have been given a bit of notice about the shelter removals.  Good luck calling the council for more information

As reported last week, the borough’s bus shelters have been disappearing, one by one… The council’s entirely useless propaganda department has been completely silent on a matter which affects thousands of the borough’s residents every day.

But Inside Croydon has discovered, from internal council documents, a plan to replace 185 “small format advertising sites”, though not for several months yet. And given that some key dates have come and gone without any public announcement from Fisher’s Folly, it could be that a roll-out of promised hi-tech bus shelters has been delayed.

As this week’s mail bag demonstrates, the under-publicised removal of bus shelters is not only a minor inconvenience on rainy days: for Croydon’s older, frail and disabled residents, the loss of seating at bus stops can seriously impact their mobility.

The council’s contract with JC Decaux, the long-established street advertising company, ended on March 31. To replace the shelters, Croydon Council has negotiated a multi-million-pound deal with a digital commerce firm which, according to Companies House records, did not even exist this time last year.

The borough’s elected councillors were not advised of the switch in provider by council officials until the end of February, barely five weeks before the first of the JC Decaux shelters began to be dismantled and removed.

Opama Khan is, apparently, the council’s “head of digital place”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, in the council’s digital service.

In a briefing note, she advised councillors of the fait accompli: “We are currently progressing a project to upgrade Croydon’s small format advertising estate which includes bus shelters and free standing panels in key locations across the borough.”

Khan said that the council had gone through a full, EU-approved tender process, and “we have appointed Valo Smart City as the new concessionaire to upgrade Croydon’s assets”. Which is nice.

Companies House records show that Valo Smart City UK Ltd has been formed to provide “Other information technology service activities”. The company was registered on August 26, 2020, has just one director, 67-year-old Isaac Sutton, and it operates from Suite 219a in some Regus serviced offices on Lansdowne Road in central Croydon, where they appear to have moved from an address in Brentford only this month.

There was another director, an American, the septuagenarian Miller Mays III, but he packed it in after just six weeks. The company has filed no accounts yet, since they haven’t been trading for long enough.

Long gone: Spring Lane, Woodside, after the bus shelter was removed. It could be six months before it is replaced

And that’s it: that’s all the information available about one of the cash-strapped council’s newest business partners, who have been granted rights to provide nearly 200 bus shelters around the borough and permission to provide advertising space there for the next 10 years.

There is a Valo Smart City business registered on Madison Avenue in New York, however.

They exist, according to their own website, as “a smart city integrator”, with the aim to “better people’s lives around the world through the Internet of Things technology”.

Their “products and services provide better lighting for city inhabitants which increases safety”. Which is nice. They also claim to make “cities more efficient by collecting real-time information for city assets, such as traffic, security, pollution and municipal utilities”. Which might all sound just a tad Big Brother-ish to some.

No mention of the humble British bus shelter though.

Khan joined Croydon Council two years ago, on a mission to use “digital infrastructure improvements and the use of smart city solutions”, she said, to “harness technology and innovation to create a more efficient and sustainable borough, and improve the quality of life for Croydon residents”. Or bus shelters with service updates – something which has been a feature of London life since before the start of this century.

In her briefing note to councillors announcing the bus shelter changes, Khan said, “Valo will upgrade all of Croydon’s 185 small format advertising sites with new digital screens as well as integrated smart city sensors at bus shelters and free standing advertising locations across the borough.

“The contract…”, with this company that did not exist until nine months ago, “will bring in total revenue for Croydon Council of £6.75million over 10 years, plus profit share.”

Khan’s note, which she marked “confidential”, was dated February 23, with little more than a month to run on the long-term arrangement with JC Decaux. Yet Khan appeared to suggest that even at this late stage, the contract with Valo had not yet been signed.

In addition to the averaged £675,000 annual licence fee payable to the council, Khan said that “an initial payment of £500,000 will be payable to the council by Valo following contract signature”. Our italics.

Under the deal, what Khan calls “smart bus shelters” will feature

  • Digital advertising
  • Free public Wi-Fi
  • Air quality sensors
  • Noise pollution sensors
  • Pedestrian footfall sensors
  • Traffic flow sensors
  • Wayfinding and travel information screens displaying real-time information: bus arriving schedule, service disruptions, multi-modal travel updates, air quality, time, temperature, and emergency messaging as needed.

Opama Khan: promising hi-tech solutions for Croydon’s low-tech bus shelters

Councillors were told that JC Decaux’s “exit will see the removal of Croydon operated bus shelters (TfL operated bus shelters will remain in situ) from as early as April 2021, and Valo will commence installation of new assets from September 2021″. Khan provided no information on when the roll-out of replacement bus shelters would be complete, nor any reason why the replacements would not be ready to instal as soon as the old shelters were removed.

And there were other ways in which it all seems, well, as the techie folks in the thrusting Croydon Digital department might put it, a bit

Khan’s note conceded that at the time of writing, the council had yet to obtain the necessary digital advertising consent from the local planning and highways departments, from Transport for London or the police.

A press release Khan promised, which was supposed to be issued jointly by Valo and the council on March 15, is nowhere to be found on the council website. The UK arm of Valo does not appear, yet, to have a website of its own. The Manhattan-based Valo last published a press release on its website in May 2018.

Croydon Council’s procurement processes have been shrouded in secrecy, dodgy deals and bodged negotiations for many years. The council’s attempts to reinvent the digital wheel, with its notoriously Crap App, was an unmitigated and costly disaster.

Worryingly for the borough’s bus passengers, there could yet be a delay over the replacement of their old, reliable bus shelters.

“We will be able to share details of the project with the public following contract signature,” Khan wrote. That was eight weeks ago. Since when there’s been silence… apart from the sound of power tools as the old bus shelters have been demolished.

Better take that brolly with you next time you set off to catch your bus.

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10 Responses to Council’s £6.8m bus shelter deal with 9-month-old tech firm

  1. As a caring and responsible council providing bus shelters that are largely used by children travelling to and from school, will Croydon Council ensure the following products are not advertised on the bus shelter digital screens:

    Soft drinks, fast foods, convenience foods, sweets, chocolate, junk food and video games ?

  2. Lewis White says:

    Digital advertsing? Has anyone worked out the electricity consumption needed to power thes e units, and the heat they chick out— and will they make Croydon’s low-carbon, anti-global warming targets nonsense?.

    Oh-and what about the environmental impact of scrapping all the old shelters, which would last for decades if left in situ, and of making the new ones. Are the new ones made in the UK or sweastshops workshops of a third world country? Or in China ?

    Thereshould be far more to procurement than just price– what about ethical manufacture ????

    On the plus front, real-time bus arrivals on every bus stop would be a big plus.

    Pollution monitors ? Well, it depends whether the information is clear and easily understood by the viewer. Is this information to be collated and presented in an annual report?

    Pedstrian footfall sensors?. Vehicle numbers passing by? What good does that give ?

    Why all this secrecy?.

    Will the new shelters be any good, and will all the hi-tech gizmos actually work and — above all, get mended if they go wrong?

    No green roofs — so some residents will be disdappointed, but above all–, the questions we all will be asking-

    will there be bins ?

    and will there be seats?

  3. I find it hard to believe that officers can enter into a contract valued at £6.75 million without the approval of elected members. If that is possible then the Council financial regulations need changing. In terms of detail “following” is rather vague. What is needed is a clause saying “within 28 days” of signing. That pins the contractor down. Hopefully the actual contract wording has been checked by the legal dept assuming there are any of them left. As to financial references, they must be rather flimsy given the start up nature of the company.

  4. moyagordon says:

    You couldn’t make it up. High standards of service from Croydon Council? Glad I’m not frail and need to sit down when waiting for a bus. Maybe local people near to bus stops could kindly put out some garden chairs.

  5. John Harvey says:

    I would not be surprised if contract signature is being held back until the police have decided how useful Valo’s facial recognition could be to them

    “VALO supplies face recognition software which is designed to work with video controls. This biometric application provides system performance and reliability.

    “The facial recognition software has live face-detection, simultaneous multiple face recognition, and fast face matching in one-to-one and one-to-many modes. This software is idea for security monitoring and law enforcement applications”

  6. Adrian Lee says:

    Will the new bus shelters have integrated USB phone/device charging points for the convenience of waiting passengers? Also, solar pv power supply to supplement grid sourced power? I first saw these features in Barbados circa 2019. Should be fairly standard for smart bus shelters by now.

    • Nick Davies says:

      Doubtless TfL will say their buses are so frequent you woudn’t have time to charge your phone. Anyway I’m not convinced such things would be resistant to freezing British damp, that is if they haven’t become a receptacle for used chewing gum.

  7. Julian says:

    They just get the ability to log mobile phone users throughout the borough as they go past any bus shelter, via Bluetooth advertising beacons. So just remember to nobble your phone when you leave the house.

    • Nick Davies says:

      Your phone is logged by the mast it’s connected to anyway, which are as close together as bus shelters in urban areas, especially with 5G.

      Anyway you don’t need a phone for them to log you, the vaccine will ensure Bill Gates finds you (subs: is this how it goes?)

  8. Lewis White says:

    Yep, superglue in council park and housing estate locks was a good old laugh enjoyed by 1980 and 1990’s vandals. But chewing gum, cool too !

    Council standing orders about contracts and expenditure, and checks, authorisation and scrutiny sound like they need a total review and revamp.

    Now we are not subject to EU procurement rules, the current acting (aka New) Chief Executive needs to get the whole package of financial regulations sorted out.

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