Should Mull vote NO? Mulling over the BID

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.

Key facts

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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24 Responses to Should Mull vote NO? Mulling over the BID

  1. This is a well written independent analysis of the whole BID process and the current situation that has arisen on Mull.

    It is well researched, written and understood by the author whom I understand has no vested interest to promote either view. If there is anyone out there with any doubt about the viability of the Mull & Iona BID, then this article makes it very clear. As one local was overheard to say “This thing (the MI BID) should have been blown out of the water at birth!”

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  2. Just looking for a bit of help,why is it compulsilory?
    If it was my business what right does anyone else have to dictate that I should pay.If I want to be part of it then that is fine but it should not be imposed on anyone who disagrees.
    Why is it legal to do this?
    Sorry just one more is it the council that pays to take the non payers to court or Bids.Seems a strange way to go about
    helping business.Vote no but you still have to pay.Vote No and your taken to court for something you didn’t want in the first place.I would of thought if these schemes were so good then you would not need to hold a gun to someone’s head.Still can’t get my head round how this is legal when someone who has nothing to do with a business can take money like this.At least A Robber wears a mask.
    If anyone can put me on the right track I would be grateful.
    Cheers Neil.

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    • Neil it’s compulsory because the Scottish Government have legislated for it and made it compulsory. And the point you make is what creates such anger among the business owners. Yes it is the Legal Department at Argyll & Bute Council who pick up the bill for prosecuting the non-payers and I suspect they are going to be pretty busy over the next few months or even years.
      I’m sure the rate payers in Argyll & Bute will be well chuffed when other services start to be cut because more money and resources are required by the legal section. The BID legislation is a bad piece of legislation and is fundamentally flawed. If the Scottish Government have their wits about them they will take this legislation and consign it to the bin before the referendum next year.
      Not sure if this helps – try looking at for further info, it’s a disingenuous piece of legislation. And watch out folks a BID could be coming soon to a business district near you too!

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  3. This article can be split in two parts. The first argues that the BID model is about regeneration and is unsuitable for Mull. The second repeats wholesale the views of a small “no” campaign group. That’s not analysis. There is no effort to represent an alternative view and there are a number of mistakes which would have been easy to check. Is this journalism ? No, at best it’s a lazy polemic.

    Who can be bothered to stay with me as I put some opposing views here in the small print at the foot of the page ?

    First regarding the model. Your analysis of BIDs in Scotland is woefully lacking. There is no doubt that the Mull & Iona BID is breaking new ground. However Rural and Tourism applications of the BID model were always expected : this just happens to be the first. You’re thinking about Oban and Dunoon, and these are classic regenerative town centre BIDS. Using a BID structure to set up a Destination Organisation in a tourism context is common practice in other countries. I believe it will become common practice in Scotland and indeed there are already other Tourism BIDs under development.

    Now, a straight correction. “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”. This is not true. Those supporting the BID were unable to attend the meeting and tried to negotiate an alternative date with the organisers, who had advertised the meeting without consulting them. But the date was apparantly non-negotiable. So an announcement was made on Thursday via email and facebook (easily checked) which confirms they are “unable to attend”, the same phrase used throughout the correpondence with the organisers. Your source for the “unable to prepare a presentation” clearly isn’t averse to a bit of spin. Shame.

    The 10 points listed as a basis for opposing the BID have full answers which can be found on

    The proposal is properly costed; you’ve quite misrepresented what it sets out to do. What you call the “balance sheet” is a five-year budget, provides a lot more detail than many other BID proposals, and has been prepared with care. The document is called a “Business Plan” because that’s what the legislation requires it to be called. It follows a format very recognisable to anyone who has read any of the material produced for the other BIDs proposed to date in Scotland. Implementation requires no voluntary effort beyond oversight from a board of directors. It will bring in grant money if it’s available, but that would be icing, not cake. The BID Manager is expected to be paid around £30K, pro rated to 3.5 days/week.

    I could go on…

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  4. Shame on you Mull & Iona BID – Sian Scotts email went out on Thursday afternoon to undisclosed recipients at 4.15 pm whilst the meeting organiser was still travelling on the ferry from Oban to Craignure. He was expected at An Roth around 4.45 pm to discuss the meeting arrangements and you didn’t even give him the professional courtesy to listen to what he had to say because you had already made up your mind not to go and advertised that fact at 4.15 pm.

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    • The meeting organiser knew by email on Tuesday (13:24) that the BID group would not be attending Friday, but were happy to attend a re-scheduled meeting. The meeting organiser then sent several emails asking the YES group to reconsider, offering to negotiate on format, but refusing to negotiate on date. The BID group went public with their postion on Thursday afternoon to give some notice to those who were being misled about who would be attending.

      This NO campaign has sadly been characterised by bullying and misinformation. I see that continuing and it makes me sick to my stomach.

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  5. For Kat.
    Thanks for the feedback I will bring it up at the next Oban C.C. meeting as I was asked by two business people in the town about the legality of it.
    For Bid for Mull and Iona.
    As I said before it is upto individual buisnesses to join if they think it will help but surely to have people on the Island at each others throats can only be a major negative for the future.
    If an area wants to go down the Bids route fair play to them but to have legislation as flawed as this where people who have worked to establish a business over a number of years or even people who are contenplating starting a business which every area of Argyll desperately needs are faced with an ultimatum of you will pay or face court that is certainly not community spirited which is one of the great things we have in this Area.
    How much more advantageous to have the threats lifted and have every part of our communities working together.I am sure if that part of Bids was taken away it would stop communities being split and work better.
    I am not a business man but I certainly wouldn’t pay for something I don’t want and I am sure you wouldn’t either.
    Cheers Neil.

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    • You are absolutely right Neil and despite the apparent best of intentions of the MI BID group to bring the communities together, all it has done so far is drive a wedge through the heart of the island.

      I continue to be astounded by pro MI BID supporters’ views that although they know the legislation has thrown up these anomalies and ‘quirks’ over the fairness of the legislation they still think it is ok to promote and support something that is so divisive that the end result somehow justifies the means. It has backfired spectacularly.

      Good luck with your CC meeting.

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  6. I’m sorry you feel you are being bullied and that the No Confidence group has been characterised by misinformation. Despite the short notice given (5 days), the Public Meeting at Aros Hall in Tobermory was extremely well attended last night (100+ people plus 2 Argyll & Bute Councillors and at least 3 Mull Community Councillors) which indicates the degree of seriousness and concern that business owners and the public have about the MI BID. All of them will confirm the meeting was well organised, calmly and politely conducted with a lot of positive energy and feedback from those who attended.
    The presentation made by the NO Confidence Group was based on information in the public arena much of which has been provided by yourselves and is therefore open to debate, analysis, discussion and interpretation. The overwhelming consensus of opinion was that the MI BID was inappropriate for Mull, Iona and Ulva.
    I understand that the MI BID group are very keen to set another date for a Public Meeting so that they can be present for a discussion and I for one am very much looking forward to reading when that will take place. Obviously with the clock ticking, the sooner the better.

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    • I sincerely wish the Pro BIDs Team could have attended the Friday night Aros Hall meeting because I feel that the No Confidence group were able to make statements and present them as fact without anybody from the Yes team being able to dismiss these claims or indeed confirm that what we were told was true. I am erring on the No side because I have real, genuine concerns about the nature of the BID and the objectives it has but I am not naive enough to believe that everything we are told by No Confidence is 100% fact and not some mis-interpretation of the facts in order to garner more support. I don’t agree that everyone in the hall was polite (Duncan Swinbanks was interrupted impolitely on more than one occasion) and there was a distinct lack of positive energy. If anything, people were consumed by negative energy (myself included, admittedly) at the whole situation. Don’t delude yourself that just because of the applause that everyone felt jubiliant and elated upon leaving the hall that night. I will probably vote no but it all leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth so you don’t speak for me, sorry.

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    • You’re right, it does seem strange that something affecting everyone isn’t being voted on by everyone but then again as someone who will be paying the levy if it goes through, I would feel a little put out that those not paying were given a vote (especially if they voted ‘Yes’!). It’s bad enough that some benefitting aren’t going to pay, to let those not paying vote on it as well doesn’t seem ideal either. It doesn’t matter which way you turn, there are flaws in the system.

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      • For Concernedaboutcommunity: this has been one of the major issues and concerns about the BID. Any attempt to raise a pot of money through compulsory and divisive means on a certain business sector of an island community no matter how well intentioned is clearly going to backfire. We all have an unpleasant taste in our mouths – but please remember the No Confidence group didn’t start this they are only responding to a situation foisted upon them with just a matter of weeks to deal with it. I’m just relieved that there are people out there prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and campaign on my behalf rather than what usually happens, everyone sits around and moans about it but does nothing until it’s too late.

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  7. For the comment No 8 chain:
    Weaknesses in the legislation are a major issue – and this involves the exclusion from the vote – and, importantly, from the potential levy, if the vote is a Yes – of tourism accommodation businesses which remain on domestic rates.
    The fact that public sector occupiers of Non-Domestic Rated property – who would be liable for a levy but who can pay it out of other people’s money – can also vote, is understandable in consistency but unnecessary as such; and is another ill-considered potential source of questionable influence on the outcome.
    On this matter, is there a vote for each NDR property – seeing some commercial and private sector interests leveraging several votes – and, of course, potentially paying several levies? This is a tricky matter – both ways – of electoral philosophy.
    All of these issues are being thrown up in the Mull campaign – and it is good for the evolution of the young legislation that this is happening.
    It is also a hugely encouraging signal that you are coming together in reason to address these issues so constructively.

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  8. There are a couple of major issues that I don’t think have ever been mentioned in the context of BID objectives, as a small business owner (with no vote) I haven’t been involved in any previous discussions so forgive me if these concerns have been addressed:
    With the BID focussed on tourism, there seems to be little regard given to businesses that aren’t tourism focussed – we are just to believe that we will somehow benefit, is there any evidence from previous BID’s that businesses outside of the reach of the BID actually benefit, my biggest concern is that I was looking for a business premises but will be holding back to see if it is going to add yet another cost on to it.
    My other concern is that improving the tourist trade is great for those established businesses and holiday home owners (both on and off the island) – however this improved tourism is only going to push housing even further out of the reach of young local families who want to live here and contribute to the year round island economy

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