September's Insight from Chris Turner


Business slowly returns to normal across BIDs up-and-down the British Isles. Clearly some of our big city centres are responding very differently to the smaller market towns and suburban BIDs. Nonetheless, the world feels that it is returning to some degree of normality as schools, colleges and universities reopen; last week the London Underground reached above 50% demand for the first time since before the pandemic. There are various strands to much of this reopening and this month’s Insight as usual tries to pick up the policy implications and impacts of four of those strands – returning to work, planning, repurposing, and information. 

There have been five ballots during the past month. Falkirk Delivers successfully entered its fourth term, Living Lerwick its third term and Albion Industrial BID was successful in going back to ballot only a month or so after a very near miss earlier in the year. The Isle of Bute BID was also successful but very sadly Crieff BID did not succeed in its renewal.

One of the major strands of the month has been our return to work. Across the country train commuting is at just 33% of pre-pandemic levels, reinforcing concerns about city centre high streets and a rise in traffic jams across the country. The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) suggests a 20% shift from rail to road would lead to 300 million extra hours of traffic congestion. This shift to extra vehicle traffic would see the West Midlands (5 million extra hours of traffic congestion), Greater Manchester (4 million) and West Yorkshire (4 million) as the worst affected city regions outside London (169 million). Meanwhile government data shows that the number of car journeys has almost reached pre-pandemic levels at around 96% but the overall number of people taking train trips is still lagging behind at around 60%. 

Recent work by the Economist (September 9 The new economics of global cities) suggests that the exodus from urban areas at the start of the pandemic, which many assumed would be temporary, now looks more permanent and indicative of a deeper shift in preferences. The big question is whether this is something to worry about. Economic activity is gradually seeping outward from the centre. What were once the liveliest urban areas are becoming less so. The less glamorous ones are taking more of the spoils. Large companies report similar trends: “Suburban-type stores have done better than the urban stores”, and Starbucks’ Chief Executive said that “transactions in the current environment have migrated from dense metro centres to suburbs and from cafés to drive-throughs”.

This is reinforced by the New West End Company’s latest consumer pulse survey, which found that 91 per cent of their respondents wish to return to the office in some capacity but 75 per cent acknowledge that they will continue to work from home for some of the week.

A major shift in government policy, part of the repurposing of the high street and partly a Covid response has been in planning. The government is reviewing its relaxation of outdoor rules, continuing some of changes in food, drink and leisure we have now got used to. Many of our leisure and food and beverage businesses will be horrified if they had to move back to some of the old pre-Covid constraints and we suggest BIDs take part in the consultation which will run from 5 September to 14 November.

At the same time, new research from the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and University College London (UCL) reveals that 80% of shops and other commercial premises on high-streets across England could be lost because of further changes to planning rules. These are matters for each BID to monitor with care. Full information here

But of course there are exciting planning narratives, such as Stockton’s vision to buy up, repurpose, restore and reconfigure the heart of the town, emphasising events, independent enterprise, green space and conviviality. The finalised plans for the vast Castlegate shopping centre were rubber-stamped this month, having already got the thumbs-up after a public consultation. The modernist behemoth, a monument to the functionalist aesthetics of the 1970s, will be knocked down and replaced by a park three times the size of Trafalgar Square. Equipped with a library and leisure centre, the new green space will link the high street directly to the River Tees, showcasing Stockton’s principal natural asset. For many this is indeed the future.

Much work continues to be done on repurposing and there are some intriguing stories out there. Britons are heading back to the gym in big numbers as they look to get back into shape after the lockdowns of the past year and seek out the extra space to exercise away from home and gyms are repurposing empty shops for extra space as UK returns to the treadmill - more info here. It will be this sort of repurposing that will keep our high streets busy, along with major projects like The Camden Highline, which will turn a disused stretch of railway viaduct into a new elevated park and walking route, connecting Camden Gardens in the west to York Way in the east. It will be a space that people will be inspired by, learn from and enjoy, with seating areas, cafés, public art and charitable activities. Details are here, and two BIDs are leading on the project.

The Covid pandemic has played havoc with interpreting economic trends, and BIDs, with their need for data and information, as they become more strategic,  are having to both work harder and analyse more. It is increasingly clear that ballots are won on our knowledge of our levy paying members, and it is comforting that the national picture is similarly messy - more info here . Our own BID data, both local and national, needs to be collected and nurtured, and the current 15th BID Survey has been sent to all 322 BID managers and Chief executives. It has been individually emailed, so if you have not had it do please let me know and I can resend the link. The closing date is September 30th, and we shall be presenting the data as usual at the National British BIDs Conference at the Leadenhall building on November 4th, where the focus of conversation will be centred around economic recovery, sustainability and repurposing our places. There are some places still available here: https://britishbids.info/national-bids-conference-2021.

One of the great sources of live data and information on BIDs is the work that Certificate in BID Management students produce in their final projects; and the final cohort of 2021 are no exception. Some vibrant exciting work, and with 117 CIBM students over the past eight years there is some work of real value https://issuu.com/britishbids. If you are interested in joining the next cohort do please contact evan.gartland@britishbids.info or visit https://britishbids.info/services/certificate-in-bid-management.

 

Professor Christopher Turner, Chief Executive, British BIDs

 

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