CROYDON IN CRISIS: A former government minister under Tony Blair helped to broker the deal with an unproven tech company promising the council £6.8m in advertising income from ‘smart’ bus shelters – but that is all in jeopardy, with the company having court judgements for tens of thousands of pounds of unpaid bills.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
The tech company which the council announced in 2021 had signed up for a 10-year contract to supply “smart” bus shelters around the borough could soon be facing a winding-up order.
Not a single “smart” bus shelter has yet been delivered or installed.
Valo Smart City UK Ltd was only registered as a company in this country in August 2020, but within a few months they had sealed the deal with Croydon to supply 185 bus shelters fitted with a host of hi-tech monitoring devices, as well as delivering on-street free wi-fi, and promising that they would generate £6.8million in income for the cash-strapped council from road-side ads over the course of the contract.
The deal between Croydon and Valo Smart City was one of the first commercial agreements for the council under its then new chief executive, Katherine Kerswell.
But 18 months after the conventional JC Decaux shelters that had served the purpose for Croydon bus passengers for many years had all been dismantled and removed, not a single “smart” shelter has yet been installed.
Passengers facing a second winter forced to wait for their bus in the rain, wind and snow have been told by the council the delay in delivery is down to interrupted supply lines due to the war in Ukraine, even though that didn’t start until nearly six months after the first new shelters were supposed to have been installed.
Earlier this month, Inside Croydon reported how Valo Smart City UK Ltd was late in filing its first year’s annual accounts – hardly something that might inspire confidence in the management of the young business, and also something which risks having the company struck off by officials at Companies House.
Now we have learned that the office suite rented by Valo Smart City on Lansdowne Road in Croydon has had a visit from bailiffs, who reportedly found the place “deserted and in a poor state of repair”.
Further investigations have discovered two separate County Court Judgements against Valo Smart City, both issued in 2022, amounting to £31,800. The judgements were issued in January and July this year, and are believed to be for unpaid invoices. Neither CCJ has been “satisfied”; that is, paid.
A Katharine Street source said today, “There was always some scepticism surrounding how Valo Smart City ever got a 10-year contract with the council when they have no track record in supplying bus shelters, and no track record in selling road-side advertising.
“Now, if they are getting hit with CCJs for 30 grand in unpaid bills, what chance is there of them ever generating enough revenue from the smart bus shelters to pay the council £600,000 a year in ad revenues? It’s absurd. It all looked too good to be true from the start.
“Kerswell and senior council officials need to explain what due diligence was conducted over Valo Smart City and the man behind it, Isaac Sutton.”
Valo Smart City has a parent company, with an address on Lexington Avenue in New York City. But the company’s Twitter account appears to have been dormant since 2018, and no one there was answering their phones today.
Inside Croydon has confirmed that the deal between the council, then under Labour control, and Valo Smart City was brokered by a firm whose directors include Phil Woolas, the controversial former government minister under Tony Blair.
In November 2010, Woolas was found to have breached the Representation of the People Act in the course of that year’s general election by making false statements about a rival candidate. As a result, his 103-vote victory in his Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency was declared void, he lost his seat in the House of Commons and he was barred from standing again at the subsequent by-election. He was also suspended from the Labour Party until January 2011.
Today, Woolas is a partner at UK Partnerships, or UKPL. The company says on its website, “We bridge the gap between young, dynamic companies from around the world and governmental organisations in the UK. This allows the British public to benefit from high-calibre technology, and helps innovative tech companies work with the UK public sector.”
Thing is, UK Partnerships don’t appear to be helping very many “innovative tech companies” to work with the public sector in this country. In fact, the last news item on UK Partnerships’ website is from November 2021, and that tells of the bus shelter deal between Valo Smart City and Croydon Council.
Under a headline “Bringing smart city technology to Croydon”, the company’s website boasts, “Transforming the outdoor advertising sector, UKPL, who wrote and won the tender in Croydon on behalf of Valo Smart City, Croydon’s innovative scheme introduces digital advertising to replace paper posters and provides upwards of £6million of revenues to the hard-pressed council.”
As brokers of the deal, it was perhaps UK Partnerships’ task to conduct due diligence on Valo Smart City to ensure that the company had the finances and expertise to deliver on the promises included in the Croydon contract.
They don’t appear to have done much checking. UK Partnerships’ press release describes “Ike” Sutton as “a global leader of the smart city revolution”. Apparently seriously.
They quote Sutton as saying, “From a standing start in early 2020 and despite the lockdown, UKPL and Valo have worked together to transform the UK smart city sector. We are very proud of our technology which will benefit the public of Croydon and hopefully be adopted across the UK.” Oh yeah!
But today, no one at UK Partnerships responded to Inside Croydon’s request to speak to Phil Woolas to handle our enquiries about the state of business at Valo Smart City UK Ltd.
No one was answering the emails or phones in Valo’s offices in Croydon, or in New York.
Croydon Council’s propaganda department was offered the opportunity to provide this website with a statement on the situation with the borough’s vanishing bus shelters. They failed to do so.
And Katherine Kerswell, the council’s £192,474 per year chief executive, had no answers when we asked what due diligence she had done to check that Valo Smart City UK could actually deliver on the promises made when the council decided to scrap its long-standing bus shelter contract, remove dozens of perfectly adequate bus shelters, and hand over the business to a company only registered in August 2020.
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
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period