“Business is an act of citizenship”: using BIDs to promote inclusive economic growth in communities

The key to inclusive place based economic growth?

The principle of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) is pretty straightforward, and the legislation in Scotland is flexible enough to ensure that pretty much anyone can create and act on a BID-based idea. There are currently over 30 live BID projects in Scotland, with BIDs Scotland stating in their latest annual report that they believe this number could almost double to 65 by the end of 2017 if upcoming and scheduled BIDs are also taken into account. The report found that, despite continuing tough economic conditions, there appears to be little evidence of a decline in interest in the BID model. If anything, more people are turning to BIDs as a way of improving local high streets using limited local funds, private investment from local businesses, and other local assets.

BIDs themselves can be seen as a cross section – a mix of the entire economic ecosystem of a place. They can encompass economic, business, local, political and social elements and bring them together in a strategic way to build revenue to support the different aspects of the BID area, including aesthetics, security and commerce. They are locally developed, locally managed, locally financed and locally delivered, giving a sense of authenticity which is becoming increasingly popular among consumers. This popularity is evidenced by the successful renewal of all of the BIDs in Scotland who have gone to reballot to date, with many actually increasing their majority in favour of the BID model.

Collaboration and embedding BIDS within their local communities

As BIDs have been developed, and new models, partnerships and ways of co- operating have been established, BID coordinators and councils in particular are thinking about how to ensure the legacy of the BID within their locality and, more importantly, how to ensure that the economic benefits of the BID are felt across the BID area, not just within the businesses.

This area-wide benefit can be created by for example, re-investing money in security, street lighting, Christmas lights, and flower baskets to improve the feel and aesthetics of a place – actions which are commonplace in BID areas. However, there are some who feel that BIDs could and should go even further in increasing their social value within a community, while not losing sight of the interests of levy payers. This balance, which requires recognition of the wider roles and responsibilities of BIDs, is something which will have to be carefully managed by BID managers in order to ensure that BIDs do not try to do too much, but at the same time act in a way which makes them a key part of their local community and economy. It is an interesting and, at times, difficult place for progressive BIDs to be.

In many areas, BIDs have provided an opportunity for increased community development, and it has been suggested that there could be a formal role for BIDs to play in the wider community development partnerships within localities. BIDs are now being developed to sit alongside existing community anchor bodies, helping to create strong local partnerships and independent communities.

Through collaboration and co-ordination, BIDs are working alongside other services and organisations to help develop sustained community empowerment, helping communities to lobby, providing work experience placements to local young people and acting positively in the form of events to promote increased community cohesion and empowerment, as well as continuing with “normal practice”- increasing footfall in their local area to benefit businesses.

Not all about the money

While generating additional income for the local economy is one of the biggest drivers of support for BIDs in communities, in some instances one of the biggest assets they bring to a community (especially once they are firmly established) is their leverage and collective bargaining power. They have the power to campaign and support other groups in the community on issues that are important to them, as well as offering greater bargaining power with local authorities or other businesses.

As well as commitment to the levy payers’ interest and to improving the local area for people living nearby, another of the potential roles of BIDs is not to act as direct income generators, but as catalysts or facilitators, to encourage new investment and wider growth beyond the BID area – to engage strategically with other partners to encourage investment.


Where next for BIDs

As we have already seen, the flexibility of the BID model in Scotland (there are some legislative differences in England) is such that groups may only be limited by their own ambition. Currently Scotland has what is thought to be the world first food and drinks BID and the first tourism BID this side of the Atlantic. Another innovation is the Borders Railway BID, which seeks to maximise the collective benefit to businesses that are located along the railway route.

It has been suggested that the BID model could be used in a more flexible way to generate income for other public service projects, including the suggestion of a BID for health and a BID for schools. Although the intricacies of how these would work in practice are still being considered, there is much that can be taken from how the existing models use community empowerment, and engagement between the public, third and private sectors to create sustainable and inclusive local economic growth in an area.

As well as their commercial enterprising side, BIDs are also realising their potential as agents of community development and improvement beyond that of economic input. The future currently looks bright for BIDs, which will hopefully mean that it also looks brighter for our local communities.

Business Improvement Districts Scotland is the national organisation for BIDs in Scotland, providing support, advice and encouragement to business groups, communities and local authorities considering and developing a business improvement district.

BIDs Scotland held its Annual Gathering on 28th March 2017 at Perth Concert Hall  with the theme of People – Place – Business: Business Improvement Districts – the key to economic growth.

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Evolution or revolution … the challenge of delivering future high streets

The crisis facing our high streets and town centres shows no sign of ending, with end-of-year figures revealing that December was the ninth consecutive month in which shopper footfall declined. The vacancy rate of high street premises also continues to be high – an estimated one in nine premises are lying empty across the UK.

This data suggests a systemic problem for present-day retailing and town centres. The causes are complex including business locational strategies, planning decision-making, consumer spending and expectations, household debt, technology and online shopping opportunities. In addition, inquiries such as the Scottish National Review of Town Centres and the Future High Street Forum evidence review, have shown that town centres remain a pressing planning challenge, with strategic and local ramifications in terms of economic, social and environmental well-being.

Making our town centres more resilient will require changing our attitudes to the use and management of these spaces. They need to deliver a mixed and diverse economy, and provide social experiences not just retail. But while this message seems to be accepted, putting it into practice seems to be more problematic.

Policies into practice

At a policy level, the National Review of Town Centres in Scotland asserted the case for a deliberate ‘town centre first’ principle to stem the leeching of investment and retailing activity to out of town locales. The review also advocated the diversification of town centre activities, including provision of residential uses and affordable housing. This was broadly accepted by the Scottish Government; and the Town Centre First principle, agreed with COSLA, to discharge a ‘collective responsibility to help town centres thrive sustainably, reinvent their function, and meet the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors for the 21st century’ sums up this ambition.

Meanwhile Paragraph 23 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), along with the revised National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) on town centre development and planning, recognises town centres as being at the heart of communities.

Addressing complexity

In practice, however, the ongoing failure of many high streets suggests that they are not transforming at the rate or scale that is needed.

Positive, organised and strategic (joined up) intervention, working across the public and private sectors, seems to be the only way to address a highly complex matter. Initiatives such as business improvement districts (BIDs) have been trialling new ways of managing and marketing successful town centres. A report last year from the Centre for Policy Studies looked at the positive impact of the 41 BIDs within London – 7.6% of London firms and over 11% of the total London workforce were located in BID areas.

The report noted that outside of London and Scotland, property owners cannot financially contribute to the measure. Business tenants tend to demonstrate relatively more short-term approaches to the development of the BID, so rolling out of property owner BIDs across England could be a way to maximise the full potential of the business-led measure.

Applying lessons from London to other parts of the country can be problematic however – after all, London is a city and a city-region with a very marked concentration of economic and political power in terms of investment, spending power and employment. The experience there of economic resilience does not resonate with the circumstances elsewhere across England and the UK.

Moreover, BIDs involve not simply economic considerations but complex issues around governance, democracy and transparency. Understanding the challenges of town centres must involve an appreciation of market decisions and the unintended consequences of government actions to address those very problems.

The barriers created by complexity were also raised last month in a report arguing for town centre investment zones to align initiatives and unlock improvement. Pooling a critical mass of property assets into an investment vehicle could allow area-wide problems to be tackled.

The community dimension

What seems to be missing from the town centre debate at the moment is a specific focus on the causes of a tangible malaise – the loss of community in many urban areas. The BID concept could very well be a compelling one, but a wider and more informed political conversation is needed before we dismantle all public interest considerations.

And so the conundrum at the heart of our towns and cities remains … how do we create and maintain vibrant places that people want to work and live in, when our planning and economic policies are still geared towards prioritising growth over wellbeing?

And how do we transform our high streets in a strategic way, to meet the needs of 21st century living?

This blog draws on the article by Professor Greg Lloyd that first appeared in Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal: Greg Lloyd (2015) High streets again! SPEL 172, pp124-125

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