CROYDON IN CRISIS: While benefits to the borough’s most vulnerable are being cut, pools are being shut down and public services axed, the council has continued to hand out a juicy annual grant to a multi-million-pound business. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon has provided private business Boxpark with a public subsidy of as much as nearly £1million since the food and booze venue opened in 2016, according to documents being put before the council’s cabinet meeting tonight.
Hamida Ali, the council leader, and her closest colleagues in the Labour-run council will spend the evening rubber-stamping their decision to close Purley Pool and they will agree to remove Council Tax Support from 20,000 households around the borough, on top of dozens of other cost-cutting measures being imposed on Croydon residents as a result of the financial collapse of the local authority in 2020.
Yet buried within the hundreds of pages of documents put before the councillors attending tonight’s meeting is one brief item which, in so many ways, demonstrates the complete lack of proper financial controls, and recklessness with public money, that characterised the council when Tony Newman and his numpties were in charge and Jo “Negreedy” Negrini was its chief exec.
An item under Sustainable Communities, Regeneration and Economic Recovery lists a number of “risks” that the bankrupt council might have to pay.
The council report says, “£160k – Potential payment to BoxPark [sic] for their 5th and 6th year grant contributions.”
Boozepark, as it is often known, is a collection of old shipping containers which entrepreneur Roger Wade got bolted together on a plot of undeveloped land in a prime location next to East Croydon Station, and started to rent out to restaurants, bars and street food vendors.
With the benefit of a £3million loan from Croydon Council, Boozepark opened in 2016, ostensibly as a short-term, “meanwhile use” project that would remain in place for no more than five years…
In that first year, a £160,000 budget for a council-run Ambition Festival was diverted away from paying for a public event in a local park, and was instead handed to Boxpark to use for their launch party.
Croydon’s Boxpark has gone from strength to strength ever since, regularly cropping up on TV news bulletins as hundreds of people gather to throw pints of lager in the air when the national football team scores a goal.
It has also been an impromptu venue for some very well-attended concerts by the likes of Stormzy.
And it was also a much-enjoyed venue for Newman and his numpties when they were spending other people’s money like drunken sailors.
Now, there appears to be an explanation for Newman and Negrini using Boxpark as a default destination for public events and after-work parties: they were using hundreds of thousands of pounds of Council Tax money to keep Wade and his venue on-side.
The brief note in the council cabinet papers is unclear whether the payment “risk” is £160,000 in total, or whether it could be £160,000 per year for years 5 and 6.
Katharine Street sources indicated that the Ambition Festival budget was diverted to Boxpark in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Nothing more was ever heard of the Ambition Festival after 2015.
But six years of similar annual grants of £160,000 would amount to nearly £1million in total – £960,000. Is that the price of Newman’s ego and Negrini’s hubris, or at least, part of it?
It is hardly surprising that some larger businesses, developers and property speculators have come to regard Croydon Council as a soft touch.
Boxpark Ltd, the parent company which rents out spaces in its Croydon operation as well as a fashion outlet in Shoreditch and a food and booze venue near Wembley Stadium, reported a healthy £15.2million turnover in the financial year to April 2020 – the last set of figures unaffected by the covid pandemic.
That year saw Wade’s company amass a gross annual profit of £7million.
Even in the following financial year, to April 2021, when the hospitality industry was hit by covid lockdowns, according to official records at Companies House, Boxpark Ltd had a gross annual profit of £1.25million.
Which should raise plenty of questions from those hundreds of Croydon Council staff who have lost their jobs, or the kids who can’t go swimming at Purley Pool any longer, or the hard-pressed single mums about to lose their Council Tax Support, as to whether anyone is going to be held responsible for frittering away so much public cash on Roger Wade’s private business.
Now, nearly 15 months since the council was forced to declare itself effectively bankrupt, officials in Fisher’s Folly are, at last, looking at stopping the Town Hall largesse for Boxpark’s private business.
The council has a well-deserved reputation for failing to organise its affairs in a clear, transparent and business-like manner. This costly episode demonstrates those shortcomings very well.
The Boxpark note in tonight’s cabinet papers appears to indicate that on Newman and Negrini’s watch, as well as the £3million loan, they also agreed to hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants to a profitable business for an indefinite period.
The report states, “Council currently reviewing legal position due to default clauses within the grant agreement which the council believes have been triggered.”
And not a moment too soon, many Council Tax-payers will doubtless be thinking.
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Boxpark’s latest accounts covering y/e 30 April 2021 appeared on the Companies House website today. Covid lockdowns have obviously had a major effect and cumulative loses have risen to £1.16m from £393k the previous year. Worryingly £3.5 million is due to be paid to creditors in the current year. There must be some doubt about their ability to make these payments. I wonder if the Councillors have seen these accounts?
What is even more concerning is the parking fines figure of £1.699m which presumably was budgeted income that they won’t now get. More wishful thinking when they were trying to “balance” the books to convince the government to bail them out of the shit.
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