Why the Exeter BID didn’t work (and shouldn’t!)

For those who don’t know, Exeter (where my IT Business is based) has recently been part of a campaign to establish a “BID” (Business Improvement District). Essentially what happens is that an extra levy is added to Business Rates, collected by the council they take an admin fee (except in the first year I think), then pass the rest to a “not for profit” company. That company then takes a load more off in administrative costs, staffing etc. After all that is done, whatever is left is supposedly spent on improving areas covered in the “BID”.

We already have issues:

(a) It’s a mandatory levy that businesses in the BID area (that you get no choice over) would HAVE to pay

(b) It’s another 1.5% on business rates. In our case that’s something like another £500 per year. Although it’s actually 1% if you are in certain areas. I’ll come back to that…

Anyhow, since the BID was first punted at us as a great idea to aid Exeter Business I’ve been incredibly sceptical about it. None of the large glossy (and presumably therefore expensive… not sure who is paying for that!) advertising convinced me otherwise. It listed “potential” benefits to Exeter, but the whole thing was rather biased. Given the idea is painted as a “good thing” for Exeter, you’d think there would be a medium to openly discuss it so any negative issues could be considered and addressed. Alas this was not the case. You could be pro-BID, but if you had any concerns or queries, it was much more difficult to mention them. I tried a couple of times but was given a bit of a run around.

So what was my problem?

Dubious and unclear benefits. The main thrust of the BID was clearly to improve the RETAIL shopping experiences in RETAIL areas. So why was it that they generally only were asked for 1% rates? Why is it that areas such as “Southernhay West” where our offices are based were expected to pay 1.5% when the main benefits in our area were utterly pointless things. Pointless? Yes, try:

(a) Bird Boxes in Southernhay (because that will improve trade and help non-retail)

(b) A feasibility study into a video conferencing centre (I’ve never heard of demand, I’m sure our office could accommodate people if they wanted that right now). But really, a study??

(c) A literature festival on the green.

…no really. That’s the sort of outstanding benefits to which I am supposed to be happy about that would really  boost my business. Except of course it would have absolutely no impact. Our office environment wouldn’t benefit.

If I look at the other areas of the proposed BID, benefits in areas such as Mary Arches Street were also a little weak. Putting lights in the trees… given lights are generally only of use at night, this basically means adding lights for the benefit of drunken revellers going to Mosaic, Mama Stones and Rococo’s. I’m not sure that this would help either, but a valliant clutching at straws effort.

Of course to really improve business in the area, the councils and red tape generators could help businesses in Southernhay via many means. One simple idea… Stop general public parking outside our offices (we have several multi-story car parks nearby), giving each business 1 free/reasonably costed space (akin to residents permit parking), and allowing 1 visitor pass each – it would help people visiting us (you know to spend money) – and would also serve to improve the connection with trade in the area. We could also really use a proper loading bay in the bottom end of Southernhay West because none of us can get goods in/out without a fuss. That I believe would require Devon County Council to get involved, so I guess it won’t happen. One of the most common complaints from our customers is the lack of parking nearby to us. It makes us seriously consider moving away from the centre of Exeter. OK sure we could have thought about it before moving in, but we also didn’t realise just how bad it could get (and with new hotels being added opposite us which has no parking, the problem gets worse – especially of an evening).

Anyhow, I digress. Back to the BID.

The BID failed this week, with 48.4% of businesses voted for, 51.6% against. Personally I am delighted. Asking businesses for extra levy’s at a time when business is quite tough for many is a poorly timed plan (seriously, the benefits are unlikely to genuinely cause an uplift in trade). The BID has a few issues, not least that it is really too small. The sums of money being dished out could only make small improvements, and not massive ones that would help.

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