It was almost 20 years ago when Kingston saw the UK’s first Business Improvement District (BID) designated. The idea, of businesses getting together to improve their local area, had begun in north America and has spread rapidly.
BIDs are established by a majority vote of business ratepayers in the proposed area and funded by a compulsory levy, generally set at between one and two per cent of rateable value. A fresh ballot is held every five years. There are now 73 BIDS in London, 65 of them in the centre.
A glance at a BIDs map reveals the growing patchwork of these business fiefdoms, from Holborn to the South Bank, through the West End and into Victoria and Paddington, east through the Square Mile and beyond to Brixton, Croydon, Wood Green and elsewhere.
They’ve come a long way from their initial focus on “crime and grime” – cleaner streets, hanging baskets and “ranger” security teams – often picking up work cash-strapped councils can no longer afford take on. Generating £57 million in levy income in London last year, they are increasingly about larger-scale “placemaking”, environmental upgrades, economic strategy and advocacy.
How are London’s BIDs embracing this wider role, along with the fresh challenges of the post-Covid city and the changing high street? That was the focus of a New London Architecture (NLA) network session held last week which brought together BID representatives from the West End, Holborn, Fleet Street and Croydon.
Their presentations, featuring film star statues and giraffe sculptures as well as the jet-washing of pavements and graffiti removal, showed just part of the job BIDS do, said Central Business Alliance chair (and On London contributor) Alexander Jan, outlining a work programme that includes environmental improvements, training, community grant-giving and even topping up Camden Council’s cost-of-living crisis fund for residents.
The Heart of London BID had just produced its own evening and night-time economy strategy and its place-shaping strategy contains 44 proposals for major improvements from Charing Cross Road to Piccadilly, said destination director Mark Williams. The new Fleet Street Quarter BID’s ambitious public realm plans will launch in the autumn added its chief executive, Lucy French.
BIDs have strong advocates. Boris Johnson when Mayor supported their creation with grant funding and formal guidance, and just before leaving office in 2016 met a manifesto target of 50 London BIDs. Speaking earlier this year as the Square Mile’s latest BID, covering its culture mile, was launched, Ruth Duston, a major force behind BIDs across central London, heralded the initiatives as a “powerful and strategic force for good” with a “proven track record for driving change and innovation”.
Not everyone agrees. Back in 2012, when he discovered his home was to be in the proposed Fitzrovia BID area, comedian turned Civic Voice and Victorian Society president Griff Rhys Jones railed against an “undemocratic attempt to manipulate Fitzrovia into something it is not”.
A decade on, his fears about demands for “more building, more density, more ‘commerciality’” may not have been realised. The BID basics of creating “clean, safe, attractive, welcoming town centres”, remain central to their work, Croydon BID chief executive Matthew Sims told the NLA session. But with high streets and town centres under continuing pressure from changes to retail habits and working patterns, and with local councils still hard-pressed, BIDs are nevertheless “at a crossroads,” Sims warned. “We need to transform, reimagine, reinvent our spaces,” he said. And that would mean more engagement with residents as well as businesses.
Even before Covid, concerns about the need for wider involvement in high street renewal were being aired. With Covid raising the stakes, a 2021 Centre for London report on town centre governance argued that “the case for some kind of mechanism which allows communities a seat at the table is strong”.
Sadiq Khan, unlike his predecessor, hasn’t set a target for new BIDs, though he was happy to back Croydon’s renewal ballot last year, describing BIDS as “pillars of many of our local economies”. And City Hall is supporting a “Community Improvement District” model in Wood Green, part of a post-Covid pilot bringing residents and community-led organisations into the decision-making process for their neighbourhoods, complementing the BID for that area.
Could that be a way forward, even perhaps for the city’s commerce-dominated centre – which has a well-established residential population too – as London’s high streets and town centres continue to change?
The government has been lukewarm in response to calls for reform, but the purely business-led model may be adapting in any case. As the BID Foundation trade body concluded in 2019, “it is arguably those BIDs that are inclusive of all business types, and can reach out to other important groups, such as residents, which will be the ones that are better able to manage this change”.
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