Written by Mike Swadling
Ronald Reagan famously said that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”. Maybe you can, but I don’t recall a situation when I’ve thought “if only the council could get involved, things would be so much better”. I also can’t think of a government service that has impressed me more than a service that I’ve received from a for-profit or volunteer organisation. This also seems to be true for Croydon’s famous Surrey Street Market. Trading under charter since 1276, the market has survived plague, civil war, and the Blitz. The real question today is can it survive the ‘helping’ hand of government.
In 2018, I wrote in the Croydon Citizen about how the council had extended the market to Sundays but had stopped the weekday traders from moving to seven-day trading. In 2017, the market was moved for ten weeks for resurfacing work which included street art installations costing £1.1 million. What did these changes and new spending bring? In the period 2016-2018, permanent traders fell twenty-one per cent to twenty three, and casual traders fell twenty-four per cent to nineteen. That’s £91,666 of council taxpayers’ money spent per trader lost. I’m reminded again of the nine most terrifying words in the English language. This was after several years of stability in the numbers of traders.
During lockdown we have seen Croydon Council declare de facto bankruptcy, with the issuing of a Section 114 notice, thanks in no small part to unnecessary spending such as we saw in Surrey Street. Now the market has reopened, the number of traders has fallen further to just seventeen permanent traders and eight casual traders. Even prior to lockdown, many things contributed to the fall in traders in the market. New shopping habits, changing work patterns and the changing population of central Croydon are among them. Council decisions to change the character of the street, the character of the market, and move them for ten weeks haven’t helped.
Now as businesses are struggling post lockdown, to add insult to injury and to help recover their disastrous financial position, Croydon Council are increasing the daily licence fees for traders by thirty per cent! No doubt the redevelopment of the market was done with the best intentions, by people who felt that the improvements would (naturally) improve things. I’m sure that those who commissioned the changes truly felt that painted stairs and a boy on a wall art installation would make people buy more fruit and veg. Success, however, is achieved by doing good, not feeling good. The best way for politicians and government or council officials to help is to sit on their hands and let the traders of the market or entrepreneurs of the town generally make their own decisions. Surrey Street market has existed for over seven hundred years. Let’s hope that it can stay free from government help and trade for at least seven hundred more.