I’ve been down to London a few times recently and it has been very interesting as I have spent a lot more time in Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) than I thought I ever would. Partly this is because I had not realised how prevalent they have become in the UK, but specifically London.
According to the government, the BID is “is a defined area in which a levy is charged on all business rate payers in addition to the business rates bill. This levy is used to develop projects which will benefit businesses in the local area”. Projects vary but they almost all start with an agenda around street cleaning, security and public realm improvements.
Over ten years ago, I went to Louisville in Kentucky USA and when you entered the BID there, you knew you were entering a different space – one which was managed differently, constructed with different materials and which generally looked better maintained than other parts of the city. There were branded bins, signposts and seating which made it clear that someone was looking after and paying for downtown.
The difference with the London BIDs is that it is not at all clear where one BID starts and another ends or some other management model is at play. This is certainly the case along the south bank where the BIDs seem to morph together. You do get a clue if you keep your head down and look at your feet as the paving materials often change.
There will also be signs – literally – somewhere, telling you that you are in a space managed by someone other than the council. You’ll often be told that you’re on private property, and perhaps that you are being filmed on CCTV.
The thing about London is the sheer number of BIDs – there are 41 in the capital, compared to 9 in Birmingham, 3 in Bristol, 1 in Liverpool and 1 in Manchester (if my googling serves me right). Of course, London is the capital city and would have more, but that is a lot more than any other UK city.
What is of interest to me is how the BIDs originated in north America as a response to improving the public realm in commercial centres of the city centre (aka the downtown). Historically, downtown areas did not have much, if any, of a residential population. What’s different in UK BIDs is that the model has emerged alongside the urban regeneration that continues to attract urban residents to our cities. And this is where potential clashes can occur. Anna Minton has written about these in terms of the issues around democracy.
For me, there are questions to be asked about: who designs and who manages BIDs? And who else do they affect? Because to be honest, we don’t know enough about what users and residents, small businesses and other small organisations who don’t qualify for a say in the BID process think about BIDs (because their rateable value is too low). This summer, SURE student Jonny Emery will be looking at this very issue to explore how other stakeholders who aren’t businesses perceive the BID. Jonny will be asking the question - do residents, users and other stakeholders agree with businesses that BIDs are a good thing? Watch this space…