Why Middlesbrough voted the bid, by John Irwin

Why Middlesbrough voted the bid, by John Irwin

In the previous BQ it was stated that central Newcastle had gained greatly from its BID.

In the same issue interviewed NE1 Ltd’s chief executive Sean Bullick, who extolled the virtues of the BID there while seeking another five year term. The question was then posed to the “good folk of Middlesbrough”: Had they been right to turn down a BID proposition there?

We at Storeys Edward Symmons - commercial property consultants and chartered surveyors in Middlesbrough town centre - successfully voted with many others against the BID in June 2012. And we certainly feel it was the right decision.

A Middlesbrough BID had been talked about for many years to continue the momentum lost after the successfully run independent Middlesbrough Town Centre Company closed in 2007. Consultations grew in 2010 but there were regular delays and a lack of clarity about the level of council contribution, the legitimacy of the area’s boundary and the strength of private sector involvement. It wasn’t clear until just before the vote as to the exact council contribution in money, staff and a defined service standard for their existing town centre services. It was feared much of the BID money would go to improve a reduced service, and that the real added value was modest. This worry was fuelled by virtually all consultations council officers led, with little obvious real or dedicated support from the private sector.

Middlesbrough’s town centre still has a flat Victorian grid and four large shopping centres in a central square. No co-ordinated enthusiasm from the major retail occupiers or centre owners towards the proposed BID was apparent. The occupier mix also gave concern within the boundary. It included many offices with little to gain from the retail orientated proposals - while ignoring an adjoining cinema and restaurant complex.

The real response was one of apathy: of 480 Middlesbrough businesses. Only 186 voted, of which only 90 favoured it while 98 opposed. There was, however, a majority vote on rateable value - perhaps understandably, as the council had one vote with a value of RV£1.438m. Therein perhaps is the problem. For a BID to succeed, more than 50% of votes cast must be in favour, and more than 50% of the aggregate rateable value. There’s no limit on total votes received. So a very small number can determine the outcome.

Elsewhere, Durham City voted for a BID in 2012 in a low turnout, but with 86% of voters saying yes. In July 2013  Sunderland won a BID with only 165 voting out of a possible 454 businesses, and a mere 108  for it – only 24% of the total but crucially 62% of those actually voting.  Darlington is similar.

Its successful 2012 BID had 210 out of a possible 550 businesses vote, of which only 130 were in favour – 24% of the total. Again, crucially, 62% of those who actually voted. There’s now a much publicised revolt among many small businesses that must pay the extra rates during difficult trading times. They question the worth of work being carried out by the BID. BIDs were started almost ten years ago, and some 150 are in place.

The Government recently extenced its remit to enable cross-boundary local authorities to set them up. So they’re not going away. The moral from experience is; to secure a successful BID requires going through the process quickly, having a high profile private sector leadership group, clarifying early on what the local authority will and won’t do, having a logical tight boundary and being clear on what added value will be secured. Many would argue the good business folk of Middlesbrough were right in their answer to the question they got – but it was the wrong question.

Who knows what would have happened had it been approached differently? Other areas have shown more acumen and enthusiasm and seem to be working successfully.

John Irwin is a partner of ES Group Ltd and director of Storeys Edward Symmons