January's Insight from Chris Turner


BIDs start the year as busy as ever, with a national lockdown, new grants on offer to our levy payers, five ballots taking place this month and another forty before the end of March. Speaking to the BIDs concerned there is sense that running a ballot in full lockdown isn't easy, that turnout may not be huge but that businesses are still very supportive. Many are trying to vote if they can and there is a large level of support for all the work that BIDs have done in the pandemic. Of course, there were ballots successes in the various lockdowns last year, and indeed of the thirteen ballots during the pandemic last year several BIDs did better than they did before. Our weekly Ballot Watch service will have the results out to you after the counts, most of which are on Friday 4th.

The major organisations that represent BIDs – Bb, The BID Foundation, ATCM and Scotland’s Improvement Districts have produced a briefing note on BID ballots during lockdown that is available here. It asks local authorities to be supportive in allowing necessary voter contact information to be populated on to NNDR lists and proxy votes, allow change of address (including to a personal address); it gives advice on operating ‘out of term’ in order to delay ballot, and also ballot postponement (within BID regulations). We have asked MHCLG and the other governments whether they are able to support this guidance so that it can have the greatest reach and impact.

One major strand in most BIDs' lives at the moment is the critical issue of levy payments, how many we are getting in, and the amount unpaid. The story is a reasonably positive one; with figures as high as 82% coming in from some BIDs. Some BIDs of course are having greater problems and the help of the local authority is proving crucial. Of course, it is the same local authority team that is allocating the Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) that is supporting businesses that are not covered by other grant schemes or where additional funding is needed, and we need them to be as proactive as possible on both BID levy collection and ARG allocation. Many BIDs are sending out their own reminder letters, managing their unpaid lists and using their own powers of persuasion, citing the tasks that they have kept doing in the lockdowns; it is this that seems to be effective.

We have been arguing strongly against any BID levy reductions and we continue to do so. BIDs have been operational throughout the pandemic, we have switched our funding from projects from events to provide enhanced safety and security, we have been looking after the property and buildings of our levy payers, we have been advising on grant funding from the very beginning and we are now starting to plan for the reopening later in the year. This is when we need the levy money; and it is a valuable sign that so many of our levy payers know and understand this. There are of course a small number of BIDs that have reserves, often because of major projects that could not take place, and they are able to offer discounts in the levy, either this year or next. As free-standing business led organisations it is our great strength that we can respond to the very local needs of our business levy payers; and it is clear that some BIDs have felt that they have to offer discounts; but of course, this does not mean that this is a national solution or precedent.

Of course, the next stage will be working with our local authorities on enforcement for that small group of businesses that are still unable or unwilling to pay. The debt is of course with the local authority rather than the BID, and many local authorities and BIDs are unwilling to use formal enforcement procedures at the moment. Some BIDs may move in that direction as the financial year comes to an end; many others are looking at phased or deferred payments, and long-term payment solutions for those levy payers who are clearly at risk.

One major new item of importance to our levy payers has been the High Court judgement on business insurance. Tens of thousands of small businesses will now receive insurance payouts covering losses from the first national lockdown, following a court ruling. The Supreme Court found in favour of small firms receiving payments from business interruption insurance policies. For some businesses it could provide a lifeline, allowing them to trade beyond the coronavirus crisis. The City watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), brought the test case, with eight insurers agreeing to take part in proceedings. One of the insurers set to make significant payouts is Hiscox, which was challenged by thousands of its policyholders as part of the case. The full information is here.

As ever we are all looking to the future and the possible look and feel of our towns and cities as the pandemic comes to an end. KPMG has done some recent interesting work on this, available here. Two of the key strands suggest that the rise of home working could help smaller towns and cities to emerge stronger from the pandemic, as fewer people may need to travel so regularly to big cities, and the rise in vacant retail space could see a fall in the price of retail premises, with landlords also potentially more amenable to accommodate the needs of new tenants, while planning rules are made more flexible in regard to the type of use. This should encourage new entrants to take up vacant premises on the high street. Our own work done with the New Economics Foundation is on the Bb website here and confirms that working from home and the rise of online will absolutely change retail, but much new will grow as some fades away. As it has always done, high quality, specialist, experiential bricks and mortar retail, with good websites, often independent, are doing very well at the moment. It will be for BIDs to work with those players to help them develop, and curate the high street very differently 

As part of this revival the £830 million funding for high streets from the Future High Streets Fund to help 72 areas in England to recover from the pandemic and deliver ambitious regeneration plans has been announced and more information can be seen here. Almost all of the first phase of 15 confirmed funded projects are in areas with BIDs and we congratulate colleagues who have exciting times ahead! A further 57 provisionally funded projects are also in areas with BIDs.

One major policy shift is in the area of housing policy, where the government has just announced a new ‘Right to Regenerate’: local people to be given a new right to take over unused council-owned buildings. The announcement is here and suggests that all that is needed is to complete a simple form, give the council an opportunity to make an argument against sale, and if there isn’t one, you get first refusal to buy it at market price. This follows on from the work on housing standards, new planning regulations and a move toward a rapid residential growth. A very radical critique of this is here.

Following the very successful Zoom Q&A last week on ballots in the lockdown, we are continuing a monthly online Zoom Q&A Insight Online, with next week January 26th 1430 focusing on ballots, levy collection, discounts, and enforcement. This is to allow any BID to share experience, ask questions, and get advice and support from other BIDs across the country. This is a time for friends and colleagues to stick together and help each other; absolutely the rationale behind BIDs.

Professor Christopher Turner, Chief Executive, British BIDs

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