NE1 can join in the fun

NE1 can join in the fun

It’s taken Newcastle 39 years to latch on to a remarkable fun-raising, money-making improvement plan. But the city now looks something of a world beater at it.

It’s hardly the most user friendly brand name to put before the public. Yet Business Improvement District has had probably the greatest effect this year in raising Newcastle city centre’s stock as an attraction to visitors – increasing quite remarkably the public spend there. Many people who have enjoyed themselves through the area’s new status probably aren’t fully aware of what it’s bringing. Nor need they be. All they have to do towards the success of NE1 is to jump aboard and be part of it. Figures emerging suggest that while the concept of a Business Improvement District (BID) is no North East brainwave, central Newcastle is gaining immensely from it.

A BID is a defined area within which businesses pay an additional tax or fee to fund improvements to that area’s benefit. The idea originated in Bloor West Village, Toronto, back in 1970, where traders obviously had no hesitation in giving a buck to make two. It reached the US through New Orleans four years later and now, besides around 1,000 such districts throughout that nation, BIDS flourish in Germany, South Africa, New Zealand and even in the like of Jamaica, Serbia and Albania. They took a long time to reach Britain, but in 2003 the then Government legislated for their introduction here.

Today there are maybe 90 in this country, developing local solutions to local problems where businesses vote to have them. Different places have different challenges, and a BID is only as strong as its membership allows. Remarkably, central Newcastle’s NE1 is now claiming a world lead in size, if you combine geographical area, levy raised and the number of business members. Many BIDS are supported by around 250 businesses. But according to NE1’s chief executive Sean Bullick: “Compared with Times Square in New York we are huge. Dublin raised a bigger levy but post-apocalypse it doesn’t, and I don’t think its territory is as big.

Heart of London, around Leicester Square, is about 200 businesses raising around £1m by levy. “Here, however, we are 1,300 businesses. We raise about £2m from the levy. In development terms that’s small change. But for catalysing and focusing delivery it’s quite a lot.” The area covered takes in the NE1 post code with bits of NE2 and NE4. It includes the Central Motorway, Haymarket, the Great North Museum and Exhibition Park, Newcastle University, the RVI, St James’ Park and Boulevard right down to the Tyne.

Core funding comes from a 1% levy on the rateable value of businesses. So a business paying £20,000 in rates would pay on top £200 into NE1. Very small businesses such as corner shops are excused payment, but are expected to participate in return. The organisation has an executive committee, overseen by a board of directors from key sectors of the business community. Together they try to lever additional funding in cash or kind. Through state funding earlier it doubled its Street Rangers – just one of the innovations – from 20 to 40. The Rangers have bikes from which to distribute information to visitors, and “meet and greet” information points. They also liaise with the businesses, reporting back any problems or suggestions, many of which may be from customers.

Cash for specific projects also come from the city council. But now, says Bullick: “Funding generally is being cut back, and we no longer get a contribution from One North East. But we try to work also with businesses on projects of mutual interest.

“A private and independent company can still apply for grants – through the Regional Growth Fund, for instance. Also there is European funding in some circumstances, and nearly half-a-million has been leveraged elsewhere.” By integrating ideas and enthusiasm special themes can be introduced that promise novelty for the public and revenue for the businesses. During Restaurant Week recently about 15 good restaurants offered early evening diners a set meal for £10.

“That was a phenomenal success,” Bullick says. “By Wednesday you couldn’t book a place for the rest of that week. This will continue twice a year. The next one is in August.” Then there was Fashion Week – 80 events over eight days and the presence of designers like Wayne Hemingway and Hartlepool’s Scott Henshall, reputed designer of the most expensive wedding dress ever, for Angelina Jolie. The biggest project to date has been Live After Five – unique to Newcastle when launched last October. This is where city centre shops and other attractions stay open until late evening and parking is free. Other cities open late but without a package.

Extra buses complementing the normal Metro service encourage people to linger in the city after work, or to come out in the early evening. Bars and restaurants have themed offers each evening and co-ordinated events like the Fashion Week are sometimes organised. An investment of half-a-million pounds was made in the marketing and £100,000 in the special events. The result? Bullick says: ”It was and remains a very challenging economic environment in which to try something like that. But it pays dividends, despite higher overheads brought by extra staffing and things like that.

“We calculated the benefit within the first six months to be £53m. Eldon Square reported footfall up three-quarters of a million for those three extra hours a day. Average footfall in those three hours now is 17.29% going through after five o’clock.” Bullick gleefully compares Newcastle’s response with results from Manchester’s early evening shopping programme. That started six years ago and aimed to get to 20% in that period, which it did.

“So we by that yardstick, and in the time we have been operating, have done very well,” says Bullick. “Average percentage of daily take in those extra hours is now more than 14% from businesses we have spoken to. We found 83% of members of the public are aware of Live after Five, and 80% thinking 8pm is the right closing time. Some 74% have taken advantage.” Apparently this does not detract from Saturday and Sunday retailing. The numbers are total gains. “One retailer has told us that while trade has been tough it would have been tougher without Live after Five.

His group’s peer stores in Manchester and Liverpool are not doing well, suggesting Live after Five put his business in the black.” Bullick is under no illusion the job is done. “But we believe it will go from strength to strength,” he says. Side benefits for the city centre include a financial contribution NE1 makes towards extra policing. And its Street Rangers, whose primary job is to give the public information, also act as additional eyes and ears in making the area safe. It’s tidier too in the evenings through additional cleaning by NE1’s Rapid Response Clean Team, on contract from Mitie. The Street Rangers and Clean Team were introduced within two months of NE1’s launch in 2009.

“They have testimonials coming out of their ears,” Bullick says proudly. “The greatest numbers of the public responding to Live after Five are 16 to 34-year-olds. But we are also persuading families. More of them are coming in, encouraged by free parking after youngsters are collected from school.” How does drawing in families square up with Newcastle’s “party city image” and the personal excesses sometimes associated? Do interests clash? Bullick replies: “We recognise party city as very important to Newcastle’s economy. People come to Newcastle because they have a great time here. We want to encourage that too. We see it as an element of Newcastle’s offer, which also includes theatre, art, concerts and things like that. Alive after Five is closing the gap that existed after 6pm until celebrants came out. The contrast between daytime and evening is now diluted.

“If Alive after Five works as we expect, it could earn an additional £243m for the city centre economy – a phenomenal return on an investment from a budget of a couple of million pounds. Manchester reckons it needed five years to reach full cruising speed. But in Manchester the business participation is voluntary. Here at Eldon Square the tenants’ association voted for our programme and, once approved, it was binding on everyone

”Often decisions in branches of national stores are made nationally, or through a regional manager. We now have to persuade those yet to stay open to study the figures,” says Bullick.

“Footfall in Northumberland Street in the first four months this year rose from 10% to 14% with an average of 11%. So if you stay open you get people. Theatres and museums take part where they can. The Centre for Life, for example, puts on evening attractions now.” Some scaling back in support has been unavoidable.

The Street Rangers are back to 20 in number with the paring of funds, but it is hoped volunteers may fill the breach. NE1 demonstrates through four innovations in particular that much can be done on little: • More green space, which the city centre has previously lacked. NE1 has introduced three pocket parks – at 57 Quayside, Cathedral Square, and at the Bobby Robson memorial garden between St James’s Park and the City’s Chinese arch. Also on the Quayside until the end of September, you can loll at Newcastle a La Plage, as they laughingly call the Wesley Square area where a beach, palm trees, volleyball court, deckchairs, ice cream concession, decking and rocks now skirt the river. And on paved stretch between Grey’s Monument and the Theatre Royal trees have sprung up.

• Public loos, written off as needless expense by councillors in many towns and cities, who ensure nevertheless their conveniences remain at the town and city halls – here NE1 has persuaded businesses to promote use of their loos without users necessarily making a purchase. “There’s a common belief now that people using the facilities will spend some time and perhaps money in the shop before moving on,” Bullick says.

• A Child Safe campaign, whereby children can wear a wrist band with a contact number in case they get separated from their guardians. Bands were sent to 82 schools, and are given out also at shops and museums. “No-one wants to suggest it’s dangerous to bring children into the city because it’s not,” Bullick says. “But it does give added security.”

• A more legible city. More signs are being put up, not only in English but, hopefully, in other languages too. Chinatown has Chinese signage already. Bullick points out: “Pedestrian signage has economic impact. A well signed city can increase footfall in the evening by 50%.”

Further plans will cost more. Permission is awaited to install 31 pontoons over the next few months between the Millennium and Swing Bridges, allowing visitors to sail upriver from overnight riverside anchorage or local marina to enjoy entertainment on the Quayside. With Olympic football bound for St James’ Park, NE1 also wants wi-fi on tap throughout the city centre.

It wants city centre bike rentals like London’s and, taking a cue from Sunderland’s Take That successes, is working with Newcastle United to plan a day-long, open-air music festival. NE1 also hopes to foster a digital hothouse, through professional services and the universities, to nurture local businesses and entrepreneurs.

NE1’s biggest handicap is lack of time, since much groundwork falls on a team of six. Bullick laughs: “We have proved we can provide income gains for business as we improve the city experience for our public, whether residents or visitors.”