EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
One of the biggest single grants handed out by Croydon Council for Borough of Culture projects has gone to a company where Mayor Jason Perry is a director.
While several long-established, recognised community arts groups had their bids for project grants for the Borough of Culture turned down by working parties set up by the council, Croydon Business Improvement District, Croydon BID, was given £50,000 to populate the streets around the town centre with fibreglass giraffes.
Perry, 54, has remained as a director of his family’s building supplies business since being elected to the position as executive Mayor in May 2022. Croydon Council pays Perry £84,000 per year as Mayor.
He joined the board of Croydon BID as a director, in an unpaid position, in September 2022.
By the end of October last year, Mayor Perry was actively inviting bidders for Borough of Culture grants through what had been called the “Ignite Fund”, where grants of up to £10,000 were on offer. Other, larger grants, had mostly already determined by this point.
Croydon’s Borough of Culture grant allocation process, to distribute £1.3million of funding provided by the Mayor of London, had been slow to begin. Committees – steering groups – were formed and overseen by council officials to sift through the various applications.
According to sources involved in the process, the Croydon arts scene is “a small eco-system”, meaning that many of those who volunteered to help the steering groups and make decisions over the awarding of grants will have also been part of groups or organisations submitting bids of their own for Culture cash.
The grant-awarding process was “quite rigorous”, according to several sources, with “protections in place”.
Inside Croydon has discovered that Shaun Webster, the head of operations at Croydon BID, an organisation with no great claims to being an artistic or cultural body, was a member of the council-convened “Ignite Fund – Large Grants” steering group.
In the first round of grant decisions, more than £800,000 was handed out to around a dozen “Flagship” projects. According to a Freedom of Information response from Croydon Council, this included £50,000 to Croydon BID for “‘Wild in Art’ family focussed [sic] visual art trail for Croydon Town Center [sic] in summer 2023”.
In the event, the Croydon Stands Tall parade of 60 plastic giraffes was not launched until mid-August, and is due to remain in place for 10 weeks, when the plan is for the discarded giraffes to be auctioned off and the proceeds donated to the national homelessness charity Crisis.
In its FoI response, the council provided no detail of how the artistic or cultural merit of competing bids were evaluated.
Apart from their novelty value, it is hard to make a case for Croydon’s giraffes as original works of art, because they are not.
Pre-moulded fibreglass figures have been used as town centre attractions previously elsewhere; there’s recently been a variation on the theme, using gorillas, in Covent Garden.
Croydon BID has in the past populated the town centre with plastic cows, all with the intention of attracting more people to the town centre, and parting them from their money…
The Croydon Town Centre Business Improvement District, to give it its full title, exists to promote the interests of its 550 members, all businesses based in a defined area. Only the biggest businesses get to have a say in its decisions, and Croydon BID draws its income from a mandatory 1per cent annual levy that they pay with their rates.
Some BID members, such as Superdrug, are “sponsors” of the giraffe project, and so have a painted plastic animal parked outside their offices. Corporately, they are, as you might expect, delighted and excited by the whole charade.
Croydon BID’s activities range from staging an annual Develop Croydon conference, to having a team who try to clean target areas with high-pressure water sprays, and hiring in a private security firm to act as bounty hunters, issuing on-the-spot fines for people who drop fag ends or are caught out in other acts of anti-social behaviour.
What Croydon BID is most definitely not is an arts or culture organisation.
Their website’s coverage of the launch of Croydon Stands Tall last week makes the aims and objectives of the project quite plain: it has been filed under “Business engagement” and “Perception and Image”.
Not “art”, nor “culture”.
On its website, Croydon BID claims that the giraffes will create “a vibrant and spectacular experience”.
Matthew Sims, Croydon BID’s chief executive, said, “This free event will unite our community, inviting everyone in Croydon — residents, workers, and visitors — to partake in the joy and celebration of our exceptional town on a massive scale.”
“Partake“, no less.
Croydon BID’s publicity also included a quote from Mayor of Croydon, Jason Perry. There was no accompanying declaration that Perry is a director of Croydon BID.
Perry has also used his weekly homily on the Croydon Council website to drum up interest in the Croydon BID giraffe trail. The Mayor is pictured prominently, shaking hands with Croydon BID’s Sims, with a giraffe front and centre.
“No doubt many of you have spotted some visitors to the borough in recent days,” Perry said.
“The giraffes are designed and decorated by local artists, schools and communities and are a bright and fun addition to the town centre. If you want to get involved in finding the giraffes across the town centre, just download the app and join the search for the giraffes!”
Nowhere on this page of the council’s official website is there any declaration by Perry to explain that he is a director of Croydon BID.
There is no suggestion that Perry was directly involved in the decision to award £50,000 to Croydon BID, but the potential for conflicts of interest occurring since he opted to become a director of Croydon BID are obvious.
Opposition politicians at Croydon Town Hall and those involved with the borough’s cultural organisations expressed shock and disappointment when Mayor Perry’s association with Croydon BID and its £50,000 grant were revealed.
“Croydon BID has been going for a decade now, and has achieved very little, if anything at all, for the town centre, which is in the worst state it has been in living memory,” according to one source.
“Yet they are always towards the front of the queue when there’s public money being handed out. The Mayor of Croydon should be looking to protect public interest and public money, not getting into bed with these organisations which exercise far too great an influence over the way our borough is run.”
And a volunteer with a Croydon arts group which had its funding application refused told Inside Croydon: “It’s truly disheartening when genuine cultural projects are overlooked, and huge sums go to a business group for something which is little more than a gimmick.
“We had high hopes that the Borough of Culture might kick-start inspired and original works within our communities – not simply subsidise big business.”
Peter Underwood was the Green Party’s candidate for Croydon Mayor last year. He described the £50,000 grant to Croydon BID as the borough’s own version of the dodgy “VIP lane” for covid contracts organised for Conservative Party supporters and donors.
Underwood said, “Conflicts of interest can occur but there would be far fewer if politicians elected to full-time roles did the job they were elected to do and didn’t have other jobs as well.
“The Borough of Culture year is feeling like a missed opportunity. Why is money being given to organisation like the BID, who exist to promote businesses, instead of the many small creative groups in Croydon who exist to promote culture?”
Inside Croydon approached Mayor Perry – catchphrase “Listening to Croydon” – to offer his justification for the £50,000 grant to a company of which he is a director.
Part-time Perry, the Mayor who inflicted a 15% Council Tax hike on all residents earlier this year, was obviously too busy to give any account for his actions, and had not responded by the time of publication.
Read more: £1.5m being spent on our Borough of not-very-much Culture
Read more: A town centre amble that goes from the sublime to ridiculous
Read more: £1.3m in Culture grants, but not a penny for Croydon Writers
Read more: £250 per day fees paid to lead on borough’s Heritage Trail
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