The Scottish Government introduced the Business Improvement District scheme essentially to try to do two things;
- encourage businesses to take a degree of responsibility for the physical environment in which they operate;
- reduce the demands on tight local authority budget to major regeneration measures.
BIDS emerge from proposals put together by those interested in the notion in a specific area, assisted by their local authority and with the support of a £20k development grant from the Scottish Government.
A proposal goes to local consultation, followed by a regulated postal ballot of all NDR [non domestic rated] businesses within what has been defined as the area of the BID proposal.
A successful BID proposal then raises its core funding from a levy compulsorily imposed on local businesses within the BID area. This is described as an agreed levy, although since the ballot decision goes with the majority vote, the levy will almost never be universally agreed.
A successful BID will have overheads, in staffing, offices and operational expenses. These must have first call on the annual sum raised by the business levy.
The amount of the residual pot will vary according to the size of the BID area and of its business population.
This means that BID communities with a modest business sector will face the ongoing costs of the administration of the BID from a much smaller financial base than that of a larger town.
In some cases, the amount remaining to be applied to the improvement of the district will not be much more than can support some window boxes of flowers, the refreshing of some paintwork and shop fronts and a modest contribution to a local festival.
In other larger scale cases, the volume of the fund to be deployed may well encourage spending on what is little more than civic clutter – tasteless overdecoration.
One size never does ‘fit’ all. It just covers all.
The circumstances of one place differ significantly from the circumstances of another. Wise regeneration is place-specific, not approached with a single external off-the-shelf solution.
While BIDS are not ‘imposed’ as such, there is an extent to which the psychology achieves just that.
BIDS are on the go just now, so the question some areas are asking themselves is whether they too should ‘have a BID’. It can get to be unhelpfully acquisitive and competitive – ‘They’ve got one so why can’t we?’
An intelligent community will consider its individual needs; examine the cost/benefit of a BID approach; explore the fit of a BID to the local needs they have identified; and evaluate the comparative cost/benefit of other measures before coming to a conclusion.
Oban and Mull
Mull, with its islands of Iona and Ulva, is now at the ballot stage of a BID proposal.
Oban, one of Argyll’s five larger towns and Mull’s mainland near neighbour at the other end of the CalMac ferry service into Craignure, has already voted for a BID.
A comparison of the two communities is germane.
Oban is arguably [unarguably] the prettiest town on Scotland’s west coast and the major west coast ferry hub to the islands.
It serves Mull, the local inshore islands of Kerrera and Lismore, the Atlantic islands of Colonsay and, less frequently Islay, which is mainly served from Kennacraig in Kintyre; and the further out Atlantic islands of Tiree, Coll and the Outer Hebridean isles of Barra and South Uist.
All of this speaks for an immediate tourism market, provided it can serve today’s visitors with the facilities, services and ambience they require and expect.
With a popuation of around 8,500, Oban is also big enough to support a reasonably wide range of types of business, with enough competition in most sectors to keep an edge on improving delivery.
Oban’s BID district includes all the businesses within its 30mph zone, each of which are now levied to finance the BID.
Oban is also a long neglected town, once lovely but today wearing ragged clothes and a bad set of teeth. It has all the capacity to be a mature and beautiful town but it faces asset management tasks that will be challenging.
Mull’s BID, on the other hand, comes from an island with a population of under 2,700 and a business commuity not only to scale but widely dispersed.
It includes its own inshore islands of Iona and Ulva [and many others], which would expect to be location beneficiaries of the BID, as would the various towns on Mull itself from its immediately recognisable main town of Tobermory, to others like Craignure, Salen, Dervaig, Calgary, Bunessan and Fionnphort.
Tobermory, unlike Oban, retains the sense of a degree of ongoing care and has an immediate individual energy most obviously expressed in its brightly coloured waterfront.
The majority of Mull’s businesses are in Tobermory and in the accommodation provision sector, which is literally scattered all across the nooks and crannies of the BID territory.
Immediately, any decent analysis of a scenario like Mull’s, in the context of a BID proposal, will scream WHOA.
A small and dispersed business population will have to pay a BID levy muscular enough to support first, its own administration and then contribute to the improvement of – what area exactly?
Without a sky high levy – and that proposed for this modest business sector is already twice as much as the Oban BID levy – there cannot be enough funds to make an appreciable difference across all of the areas of the businesses levied.
This can amount to nothing more than minor cosmetic tifting up of the small towns, paid for also by businesses in remote places.
The argument that this BID will market Mull so well as a destination that it will trickle the benefits of enhanced visitor figures into the dispersed accommodation providers, is so thin it does not bear examination.
Mull actually does very well on the back of:
- the BBC children’s former TV series, Balamory, visibly set in the immediately recognisable Tobermory;
- its stunning marine and aerial wildlife resources, with its white tailed sea eagles viewing centre at Glen Seilisdeir and many wildlife boat tour operators, some internationally awarded;
- its long established fanbase as a leisure sailing destination with the marina at Tobermory and its first class shore facilities.
In a town, with a physical concentration of a substantial business community in an area they can collectively maintain and develop, a BID is a useful way of – not to put too fine a point on it – enforcing collaboration in maintaining and developing civic assets.
In a largely rural community of dispersed communities and with a small business base, a BID proposal requires serious pause for thought.
The MI BID ‘No Confidence’ position
Any ‘No’ campaign on anything has to face damaging accusations of negativity. These are not always well placed.
In this case, the ‘No’ group are presenting no rabid objections but an objective and intelligent analysis that is in Mull’s interests to consider and that appears not yet to have been properly heard.
There is a meeting tonight, 1st March, at 19.30 in Tobermory’s Aros Hall, which will be worth attending.
It was supposed to be a moderated presentation by both views on the MI BID, in the same place, at the same time, simultaneously available to audience questioning.
This would have been the most valuable occasion for BID voters, who received their postal ballots on 6th February [some will now have cast them] with a closing date of 5 pm on 21st March.
But last night, with under 24 hours to go, those supporting the BID withdrew, claiming that they could not prepare a presentation in the time available since the invitation on Monday 25th February. These are the people who have MADE the BID, so it is strange that they do not consider themselves sufficiently familiar with it.
The ‘No Confidence’ group got their presentation together in that time.
The meeting is going ahead anyway, with a responsible process explained in the news piece we published here last night.
The largely unheard ‘No Confidence’ position is based on the following points:
- The BID has had over a year and £38,000 of public funds for the Plan. We are all in favour of progress. But they admit that this is not a business plan to merit commercial loan or investment. Worryingly, they couldn’t explain or defend it at the meetings at Fionnphort, Tobermory and Craignure. Why should we be forced to invest for 5 years in a wish list?
- The BID’s Objective 1 is to attract visitors and Objective 3 is to be a collective voice. How can they achieve that without a website? They seem to have bowed to existing website owners, rather than pulling island efforts together, as they claim is their intention.
- The BID’s Objective 2 is to ‘improve the visitor experience’. The BID’s market research was weak. Improvements should of course be made. But customers tell us not to spoil the beauty, tranquillity, wildlife and sense of community of the islands. Many want less not more ‘visitor interpretation’ and ‘destination marketing’.
- The Community Trust proposed and hosted the BID. Objective 3 includes things like parking and toilets. But these are the responsibility of the local authority and Trust, and should be financed from rates or Trust funding.
- Much of the levy would go on staff, rent and other overheads. The Plan shows staff costs level over the 5 years. In fact, they would need to rise to retain quality staff.
- The BID levy is twice Oban’s. It is expected to rise in line with RPI, faster than we can raise prices to our customers. It will increase costs when we must reduce them. We can spend the money much better ourselves on our own businesses.
- The BID format suits shopping centres, not Mull and Iona. Many would benefit with no contribution, many contribute with no benefit. The BID would be divisive.
- The BID legislation is badly drafted, and the process confused and undemocratic. Tax and compulsion are necessary for government, but business needs freedom to make voluntary associations with those with similar interests.
- At least 15 people say that page 27 of the Plan misrepresents them as members of the Steering Group. This is regrettable in itself, and has inhibited fair, open and balanced debate.
- We should make our existing organisations work instead of inventing new ones. We fear more confusion, delay and waste of time and paper. In 18 months, all would be as critical of the BID as all its predecessors. Enthusiasm would ebb, leaving tax, staff and overheads behind.
We understand that there is another problem here with the specific eligibility criteria for having a vote on the BID proposal.
Eligible businesses are Non-Domestic Rated [NDR] businesses only. This has thrown up a serious anomaly.
The more numerous tourism and retail sectors were the major target of the BID, in view of the compulsory 5 year levy to be paid in the event of a successful BID proposal.
However, a number of tourism related businesses will not be eligible either to vote or to pay the putative levy because they are Domestic Rated.
These businesses include tour operators, small B&B’s with 3 rooms or less and self catering properties that, for whatever reason, are not listed on the Joint Valuation roll. These businesses would either benefit from the levy paid by others, assuming that there might be benefits at a level worth having; or save their money while others were compelled to waste theirs.
The BID proposal
The objectives of the BID proposal are to attract visitors and improve the visitor experience.
The major focus of activities would see:
- a destination marketing plan
- a PR campaign
- a new programme of festivals and events
- and a pik’n’ mix list of improvements to the visitor experience, including: walking, cycling and mountain bike paths; more adventure playgrounds and outdoor pursuits; geo-caching; interpretation boards; improvements to parking and public lavatory facilities; litter and beach cleans; and it goes on and on…
There are to be groups for everything and the level of practical realism is woeful.
Any one of these things would take substantial money and effort – and quite how this can be done on a levy of £125,000 annually raised from the business community seems questionably, if admirably, optimistic.
It could only promote the dependency culture of endlessly applying for grant funding.
Just reading the list of what is to be achieved in the first year requires a rest in a darkened room.
The balance sheet in the BID proposal document would not withstand serious scrutiny, not would its basis in reality. For example, the cost of the employment of the BID manager – a heavily overworked position – is set at £6k a year?
This document is called a ‘business plan’ but does not resemble the genre.
A core question is where all of the massive voluntary effort would come from even to try to achieve the stated objectives? People have jobs to do, livings to earn and lives to lead.
It is a pity that the ‘Yes’ group decided not to participate in tonight’s meeting – because what could come out of all of this is a coming together of business interests to look at other ways they can introduce real and strategic development in Mull and its islands, without being tied to the bureaucracy of a BID – which simply does not seem fit this community.