CROYDON IN CRISIS: The volunteers from an award-winning charity have been kicked off the steps of the council’s office building, in case they put off prospective business tenants of the cash-strapped authority.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon’s £82,000 per year elected Mayor, Jason Perry, who lives in a £1.3million house with its own swimming pool, has allowed the council to block charity volunteers from feeding the homeless from the steps of the council offices.
The move has prompted the local MP, Sarah Jones, to issue a critical letter to the council, seeking action to find a suitable town centre location for Nightwatch.
The painful truth is that the private developers have been allowed to stage a landgrab, all but taking over Queen’s Gardens for the private use of their home-buyers and tenants, and they don’t want a bunch of homeless people converging outside their “luxury apartments” each evening.
And meanwhile, the council’s chief exec, Katherine Kerswell, appears to have calculated that operating a soup kitchen from outside her offices will lower the possible rental income from potential tenant businesses, too.
For decades, Nightwatch had run a soup kitchen and provided other support for the homeless and working poor from Queen’s Gardens, opposite the Town Hall.
The charity’s years of service to many of the poorest and most vulnerable in Croydon was recognised last year when it received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE of community volunteering.
But Nightwatch is finding barriers being placed in its way by the very people who should be welcoming their interventions and helping them: Kerswell, Mayor Perry and the council.
When the then Labour-run council handed over a large chunk of the town centre’s only public park for a multi-million-pound housing development, Nightwatch lost its regular pitch from where it had offered hot meals, warm clothing and a range of other services for decades.
Back in 2017, when the Queen’s Gardens developers, Hub, were trying to impress the council’s planning committee with their generosity and good intentions over Nightwatch, they included in their submissions, “It is apparent how valuable the services [Nightwatch] provide[s] are to [the] homeless people accessing them.
“The proposed development may impact on suitability of the Queen’s Gardens as a site from which Nightwatch wish to operate, but we remain committed to working with them beyond the planning application submission and supporting them to continue to deliver services locally that homeless people rely on.”
The harsh reality in 2023, after the builders completed their work and residents started to move into the five new blocks, is that the developers of the 500-odd flats don’t want a bunch of homeless people congregating in what they have effectively annexed to become a private green space for their home-buyers and tenants.
Turfed out of Queen’s Gardens, Nightwatch found what appeared to be a solution, setting up their trestle tables and urns of hot drinks on the steps of the council offices, Fisher’s Folly (what the unenlightened sometimes refer to as Bernard Weatherill House). It even had the advantage of being, at least partially, under cover.
But according to the his annual report delivered last week by Jad Adams, Nightwatch’s long-standing and widely respected chair, even the nightly delivery of help to the homeless has become a “challenge”.
“We went to meetings where we were assured by the designers of the gardens and the developers that there would be a place for us in the ‘new’ Queen’s Gardens,” Adams wrote.
“As the development proceeded, the gardens were boarded off and we worked under the canopy of Bernard Weatherill House.
“When the hoardings came down it was clear the new gardens, with large play areas and a part of the land taken by new-build housing, was no longer right for our service, there wasn’t a place for us.
“To add to our problems, the council wanted to let part of their property and didn’t want us to be in front of their building when they were trying to attract tenants.
“We had discussions with deputy mayor Councillor Lynne Hale and council officers about where we might be if we weren’t there, but the council did not come up with any solutions.”
Nightwatch has continued its nightly service, operating from further down Fell Road, within sight of the council buildings and the gardens, to maintain continuity and ease of access.
“The space isn’t ideal,” Adams told Inside Croydon.
“It is too confined and has only one efficient exit. We would happily pay to have it improved with a new entrance (so clients could walk through) and a shelter, but we would have to have the right to stay there.
“The council says they want to develop this area, but not where they will be getting the money from.”
Adams says that the council has been trying to shift Nightwatch out of Queen’s Gardens since the previous Tory council administration of Mike Fisher in 2011. “We were still there 10 years later, so we won’t be rushing,” Adams says.
The council, Adams says, is “failing to come up with any constructive suggestions of what we should be doing now the gardens have been so reduced and developed that there is no place for us”.
MP Jones told Inside Croydon, “Nightwatch is a fantastic organisation which represents the best of Croydon and has been caring for people who are homeless in our borough since 1976.
“In the last 10 years, Jad Adams and his team have served over 170,000 meals to people in need.
“The Nightwatch team are out in the town centre every night, whatever the weather, and it’s clear that a shelter or cover is vital to allow them to do their important work.
“I’ve made representations to the council, encouraging them to support this vital local organisation, and I’m delighted to support Nightwatch’s campaign.”
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