CROYDON IN CRISIS: Long-promised ‘smart’ bus shelters have been delayed because of supply issues caused by the war in Ukraine, according to the latest excuse offered by Town Hall officials.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Long-suffering bus passengers travelling around Croydon are facing a second winter in the rain, sleet and snow without even the modest comfort afforded by a shelter at many of the stops in the borough.
And there’s concern that the company at the centre of the £6.8million 10-year deal to provide 185 “smart city” bus shelters might be struggling to deliver on its agreement.
Croydon’s cash-strapped council has potentially already missed out on the thick-end of £1.5million income, promised from a licence fee from the new partner for allowing them to advertise on the borough’s bus shelters.
According to a senior Katharine Street source, the latest excuse being given by council staff for the lengthy delay in replacing the borough’s bus shelters is because of supply issues with the manufacturers arising from shortages of materials caused by the war in Ukraine.
But this response was provided by a Town Hall official to a curious councillor in April, just a few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and probably far too soon for the war to have had any real impact on tech firms’ supplies.
“It was not convincing,” the councillor told Inside Croydon.
It is 18 months since Inside Croydon broke the news of the disappearing bus shelters, when the council’s previous partners, JC Decaux, started dismantling their own structures which had served the borough’s residents for many years. JC Decaux’s agreement with Croydon expired on March 31, 2021.
New partners, Valo Smart City, were supposed to install replacement shelters which, we were informed, would provide all sorts of hi-tech advantages: digital advertising (which has been commonplace on bus shelters elsewhere in London for at least 20 years); free public wi-fi; air quality sensors (kit that has also been around since the 20th Century); noise pollution sensors (ditto); pedestrian footfall sensors (ditto); traffic flow sensors (ditto); and wayfinding and travel information screens (ditto). Ho-hum.
The Big Brother bus shelters would also come with built-in CCTV cameras, according to a confidential briefing document for councillors from Opama Khan, the council’s digital department official overseeing the project.
But the new shelters were not ready to replace the old ones when Decaux’s were being removed. The all-singing, all-dancing (and all-seeing?) shelters would be installed by “autumn 2021”, the council originally promised.
By November 2021, when the council went public with a press release about the missing bus shelters, the delivery promises had slipped to March 2022, “subject to planning approval”. It was Croydon Council’s own planning department who would be expected to provide such approvals.
The council boasted on its website, “Croydon will be the first borough in the country to benefit from this private-public partnership and VALO will install the new bus shelters for no extra charge as part of the contract.” What’s not to like?
In December last year, the council was still peddling the line that the new bus shelters were about to arrive and would in some manner revolutionise the lives of Croydon residents.
In a typically self-congratulatory missive from Neil Williams, Croydon’s first “Chief Digital Officer”, who had spent three years in his post empire-building, recruiting staff while jobs were being axed in every other department in Fisher’s Folly, he described the agreement with Valo Smart City as a “landmark deal”.
“It’s great news for Croydon that will bring in at least £6.75million income to help fund public services,” Williams said.
In its press releases, the cash-strapped council was keen to show how savvy they had been in securing the money-spinning deal with Valo. The digital advertising revenue, they said, was made up of £675,000 per annum as a minimum guaranteed annual fee over 10 years, plus a revenue share of 5per cent. Valo were also to pay the council £500,000 on signing the contract.
Of course, JC Decaux also paid the council a fee for using bus shelters as advertising hoardings; with decades in the business in this country, they probably had a more realistic grasp of the value of any deal in the south London borough, and that probably wasn’t quite as valuable as the council’s digital boffins were demanding.
Taken all together, it suggests that, 18 months after Decaux left town, and according to the council’s own figures, Croydon has missed out so far on £1.5million in guaranteed fees, plus the promised 5per cent of advertising revenues.
Now, officially in autumn 2022, and there’s still no new bus shelters, a full year and a half since the perfectly serviceable, non-digital shelters were junked.
There was some scepticism expressed over the deal with Valo Smart City: the US-based business had only registered its UK arm in August 2020. The company had no track record in delivering street furniture or advertising sales in America or in Britain. Yet the council’s digital department’s boffins reckoned that the deal had gone through a full and rigorous competitive tendering process.
Further investigation by Inside Croydon has now discovered that Valo Smart City UK Ltd has so far failed to lodge its first full year’s accounts with Companies House. The company’s first accounts, for the trading period up to December 2021, were due to be filed by August 23 this year.
Failure to submit accounts to Companies House can lead to a company being struck off.
Valo’s accounts from their first year of trading, once they have been lodged with Companies House, should provide more information on whether they really do have the financial muscle to deliver 185 digital bus shelters, and the advertising sales back-up to go with them.
Read more: Council’s £6.8m bus shelter deal with 9-month-old tech firm
Read more: Bus passengers face a wet winter of discontent with no shelters
Read more: Chief digital officer quits council after splashing the cash
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