As one BID buckles, can the others be justified?

Friday, 4th June 2021

Jimmy McGrath

King William IV landlord Jimmy McGrath

THERE will be few tears shed among the refuseniks for the Hampstead Town Business Improvement District, which finally buckled to relentless pressure this week, and is seemingly gone for good, (Business levy rebels celebrate victory as scheme is ditched just before crunch vote, June 3).

BIDs have – to their critics – divided high streets like secretive quangos with little to no gain.

Since this new tier of bureaucracy was first created in 2004, they have operated with variable success.

In Camden Town, there is an ebullient organisation which has won the support of enough businesses to stay in place for the years ahead.

Other BIDs, however, have struggled to produce a list of memorable achievements.

The fundamental criticism has always been that the “service” – wider pavements, street cleaning, information for visitors – could easily be provided by a properly funded local authority.

The extra levy on smaller businesses in Hampstead was at best unnecessary, at worst punitive. During the pandemic this was brought sharply into focus for many struggling independent firms.

From the outside looking in, BIDs can appear self-serving. When under-fire they desperately seek to justify their own existence with vague successes that are hard to quantify.

They have been characterised by pointless and rebranding exercises: attempts to rename Holborn MidTown for example, or Fitzrovia as NoHo and the Strand as the NorthBank. They bring with them a corporate “Company Town” feel.

There is an argument that in busy areas like Camden Town, Covent Garden or Holborn that BIDs can serve a role. Big business, which often skews the rents and rates for smaller firms, should contribute to their local areas.

A compulsory top-down approach, however, sows seeds of distrust and in some cases anger. In Hampstead, the BID was as ridiculous as it was unnecessary.

The ludicrous nature of the scheme was perhaps personified by the hiring of a warden outside the tube station, whose sole role was to direct tourists to shops and attractions.

In Hampstead, NHS surgeries and schools were billed. A pub landlord was summonsed to court several times for refusing to pay.

It was never about the money for Jimmy McGrath, but the court would not hear arguments about the ethics of the project. The council served as willing arbiters in the dispute.

The votes that gave the BIDs a veil of democratic accountability left questions on how the ballots were constructed. To some extent they framed the rules themselves.

So, well done to the Hampstead Village Voice for its vigilant scrutiny. Now questions should be asked if other BIDs in Camden are providing value for money.

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