History has shown that less is more in terms of reducing centralized control and complexity. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron tried—but failed—to introduce a concept of “Big Society” where the state is rolled back to allow charities to run more of our public services. In addition, in 2012 the government introduced its much-vaunted police and crime commissioners (PCCs), the mandated individuals who were to be more accountable than the previous unelected police authorities in managing issues like retail crime prevention. However, the elections attracted an average turnout of just 15 percent and were not a glowing endorsement of local democracy in action.
Enter the BIDs—the Business Improvement Districts—that have succeeded where the Big Society has not. They have in the majority of cases developed a working, funded model of local democracy that proportionally represents the interests of its constituents and the business communities that represent the retailers and night-time economy. Failure to carry out what they were elected to do means no second term. Those mandates have covered diverse subjects and needs from street cleaning and “furniture”—benches to street lamps—to retail crime prevention. All are directed at entrepreneurial ways of making their towns distinct and more attractive to inward investment and greater footfall through initiatives including food, flower, or music and arts festivals.
British BIDs is an industry body that oversees around 200 town and city-led BIDs. Of those BIDs, the new order has been re-elected in 91 percent of renewal cases. Where they have not succeeded is where the conditions were not quite right in the first instance and had more of an industrial rather than a service-led economy, for example.
What Is a BID and Where Are They?
Business improvement districts are not a British phenomenon; they were first established in Canada and the United States in the 1960s when urban life was seen to be in serial decline. They now exist across the globe, including in South Africa, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. Europe is looking to embrace the concept or already has its own equivalents.
All BIDs differ in their focus, some to a greater extent. In South Africa, for example, they are called City Improvement Districts (CIDs) and are more akin to a private security force.
In Dublin, Ireland, more than 2,500 businesses have been part of a BID for the last five years, during which time the body has been working closely with the Gardai to work on retail crime prevention and other forms ofanti-social behavior, including thousands of euros spent on removing graffiti from the city center.
Indeed, in terms of loss prevention, many BIDs have focused on specific crime-reducing strategies even to the point of funding their own police resources seconded from the local force.
Governance and Management
Part of the transparency agenda is the fact that the vast majority of BIDs are not-for-profit companies limited by guarantee. They set out how they will be governed not only in their BID proposals, but also through company articles of association.
Not unlike many schools, BIDs are managed by a board of governors made up of levy payers who represent the BID area and who have specific management skill sets.
BID management teams vary with the size, focus, and budget of each BID but will generally encompass management, administration, business engagement, marketing and communications, and project management, all of whom run the operation but also communicate with the wider world about what the BID is doing. British BIDs also provides training development and networking forums for BID staff and board members as part of the continual professional development program.
It is important for BIDs to measure performance to demonstrate the return on investment to levy payers through activities in the area.
All BIDs run along the lines of most democracies—a five-year term and then they are judged on their performance at the ballot box if, after that time, there is an appetite for the BID to continue.
BIDs restore your faith in democracy. They are not quangos. They are focused bodies that inform and educate their constituents in order for them to make informed choices. In some cities it is the retailers only that are charged, rather than commercial office occupiers, if that is what the focus is. On Birmingham’s Broad Street in the UK, the focus is the night-time economy, so the bars and restaurants pay the levy to ensure their stake—their voice.
The focus is determined by the origins of the BID. In some cities the need to focus on retail crime prevention and other types of crime has served as the midwife to the birth of the BID, and it has embryonically grown out of the town center or crime reduction partnership that already exists. The Angel area of Islington, north London, is another such example where their resources are focused upon footfall and making the area feel safe for shoppers, a fact that in its first election created its own nine-strong police force seconded from the Met, all paid for by the business levy.
The difference between business rates and levies is that the latter is hypothecated or ring-fenced for use only in the BID area, whereas business rates are paid in to and redistributed by the government. What the levy is spent on depends upon the complexion of the BID and what is set out in its BID proposal or business plan—the priorities for improvements for the area and its services, as well as how the BID will be managed and operated. This is the document on which its term will be judged. However, most BIDs also have generic objectives including increased footfall, improved staff retention, business cost reduction, area promotion, facilitated networking opportunities, and assistance in dealing with the council, police, and other public bodies.
Because they are all different in the democratic make-up, tensions have existed where retailers do not want to pay the levy if it does not include a radio link to retail crime prevention; they simply do not want to pay twice.
Necessity is the mother of invention. As state control recedes, BIDs grow because someone has to do the work to make urban areas safe and pleasant places to do business. This is a growing organism, and when towns and cities get to their second term, they are truly beginning to create a brand for that area, which is all tied up with the sense of civic pride. This is because the people who live and work there want to make things better and have the power to do something. The BID is simply the standardization of the management of that process.