Business levy rebels celebrate victory as scheme is ditched just before crunch vote

But bailiffs still continue to chase landlord who refused to pay charge

Thursday, 3rd June 2021 — By Harry Taylor

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Jimmy McGrath celebrates at the King William IV

FIVE years of campaigning by business levy rebels in Hampstead paid off on Friday as the scheme’s bosses announced it will be wound up.

A ballot was set to be held next month to decide whether the controversial Hampstead Business Improvement District – known just as the BID – should be renewed for another five years, continuing a compulsory charge for shopkeepers, pubs, charities, state schools and NHS surgeries.

The idea behind the BID is that the money is then put back into projects that help the local area.

Yet with six weeks to go until a voting period began, the announcement was quietly made by email on Friday lunchtime that it would not go ahead, and the BID would cease exist.

Both sides – “yes” and “no” – had started to campaign in recent weeks.

The BID had even announced its plans for the five years ahead, if it were to be voted back in.

Members of the board had been canvassing support in Hampstead village. Yet they were trailing the efforts of “No” campaigners who had been out on the streets in recent weeks and posters had appeared in windows.

The abolishment campaign had said they believed they would have won by a significant margin if the vote had gone ahead.

A key “no” campaigner was Sebastian Wocker, editor of the hyperlocal magazine Hampstead Village Voice, who has proved a thorn in the BID’s side since it was established.

He and others had gathered in Hampstead for a campaign photocall on Friday morning when the news broke, sparking jubilant scenes in Flask Walk. Keith Fawkes, who owns an antiques and second-hand book shop in the street was seen skipping down the street in celebration.

Mr Wocker said: “It was just a very happy moment. In the canvassing we’d done we had a 54 to 8 lead, so say we doubled the figures and were a bit generous to the BID – we’d still have won.

Sebastian Wocker

“As soon as there was any voice against it, that was it I think. There was never really a ‘vote no’ campaign the first time around as people didn’t realise what was going or know it was happening. So we made sure we were organised this time around.”

Mr Fawkes told the New Journal: “It’s marvellous news. I hope that we’ll get some money back as well as they’re in funds. We will await getting cheques back from Camden.

“The problem is if you are trying to fight Camden you’re in a difficult position if you are a shop owner. If I don’t pay up for three years, I’ll get taken to court and not everyone can afford a barrister.”

The New Journal understands that in recent weeks members of the BID’s board, which consists of local business owners, were tallying up how many votes they were likely to get and called off the vote when they realised a defeat was likely.


SEE ALSO TIMELINE: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HAMPSTEAD BID


The BID was formed after a vote in 2016 and was chaired for the first two years by Caroline Goldsack. Its board then brought in management firm Primera and former Conservative Party parliamentary staffer Marcos Gold to run it and try to reset relations with disaffected businesses.

The circumstances he inherited were unenviable.

The council, which enforces payment of the levy, had already taken King William IV landlord Jimmy McGrath to court over not paying the annual sum.

The publican, was one of the first to raise complaints about the value for money of the scheme and through his barrister Robert Griffiths QC, told a court that the annual bill had not been properly issued.

A magistrate ruled against him, but Mr McGrath has told the New Journal that he has not paid the levy since. Reacting to the scheme’s cancellation, he said: “We beat the bastards.”

This did not stop bailiffs arriving at the pub yesterday (Wednesday) over the unpaid charge. They threatened to take away his pub’s furniture so Mr McGrath paid but Mr Griffiths QC said this was “without prejudice” and “to avoid embarrassment during working hours” – suggesting there will be a claim to get the money back.

The BID’s ideas included arranging the Christmas Festival, flower baskets, rubbish collection, street cleaning and hiring a “village ambassador” to guide lost tourists.

But a growing number felt that the services would have been provided anyway by the council, or were already arranged by its predecessor the NW3 Business Association.

Mr Fawkes said: “If it did some good I wouldn’t have minded, but it was never value for money.”

Mohamed Hasan, who runs Hampstead Hardware agreed, saying: “What is the point to pay £800 a year for me and get nothing, or for them to change nothing. It’s not fair. I’m very happy it’s going. That is why I put the poster up in the window.

“The BID hasn’t been anything special and the climate is not good enough to pay extra money after the pandemic.”

Concerned locals held a meeting in October 2019 in Hampstead Community Centre to organise the “BID Abolishment Campaign Hampstead”.

After an enforced break during the pandemic, in recent weeks Camilla Del Maestro, owner of her eponymous crystal shop in Heath Street, Mr Wocker and others had been on the campaign trail, canvassing others and putting up “Say No to BID” posters.

In a statement the BID said it had taken the decision in response to a “perception analysis” exercise, which had also informed the business plan it unveiled in May.

It said the impact of the pandemic had hastened the move.

“It is felt that adding further overheads to local businesses struggling to recover from the global pandemic is not appropriate at the moment,” the statement said.

“Based on this decision the business community will not now be balloted and the BID will be wound up by the end of July 2021. Work will now commence to ensure this process is delivered smoothly and in line with the legislation.

“The BID board, the initial management team, and since 2019 the Primera-led executive team, have all worked tirelessly to support the local business community. The feedback and engagement of businesses has helped steer the BID, and has ultimately informed this decision too.

“We’d like to take this opportunity to thank the businesses of Hampstead village for their support over the past five years and want all the best for the area moving forward.”

Mr Gold said the BID’s board, which is chaired by Els Bauer who runs Stella Lange in Marty’s Yard, is currently looking into how much money is left over and how it will be distributed to businesses.

According to regulations governing BIDs, money held in reserves that has not been spent will need to be refunded to businesses.

Ms DelMaestro said: “There are questions that still need to be answered. Where was the money spent? I think they think by pulling out they won’t need to answer them, but they have to.”

Mr Wocker, who lives in Arkwright Road, said: “I am happy justice has been done now, I am really happy for the schools, charities and businesses who were forced to pay and don’t have to any more.”


BID scheme in Camden Town confident it will fall in same way

THE chief executive of Camden’s most successful business improvement district (BID) has said he is not concerned by the fall of the Hampstead scheme, writes Harry Taylor.

Simon Pitkeathley, who runs Camden Town Unlimited, which operates in the expanse of Camden Town running from Mornington Crescent to Chalk Farm and to its the border with Islington, said his own BID’s reelection last year for another five-year term was a show of confidence in his scheme.

It comes as some Hampstead shop owners said they hoped their campaign would be replicated across the country.

Other BIDs operating in the borough include Euston Town, Midtown – which is managed by outgoing Hampstead BID manager Marcos Gold –  and Hatton Garden.

Mr Pitkeathley said: “I don’t think it’s something to worry about. That is the nature of BIDs in some areas, they are peculiar to their areas and if people don’t want them and they want them to go they won’t vote for them.

“There were people there who weren’t fans of the BID and there has been a campaign against it as a group, and the people behind it clearly felt it was unsustainable and have taken this decision.

“We haven’t had the same thing and we hope that’s because of what we do and the ideas we’ve had over the last few years with things like the Camden Collective and Camden Highline.

Simon Pitkeathley

“What works in different areas is particular to those areas and they have to respond to their membership and that’s what we hope to have done.”

Keith Fawkes, who runs an antique and second-hand bookshop in Flask Walk had told the New Journal that he hoped it would spark a domino effect.

“I’ve been told that some are very successful, but I will hope this could be a real trigger,” he said.

Anti-Hampstead BID campaigners said they hoped a new voluntary organisation similar to the Belsize Village Business Association (BVBA) that has led the “streatery” could now be set up.

The NW3 Business Association was a voluntary group that existed for Hampstead before the BID was voted in back in 2016.

Campaigner Sebastian Wocker said: “I would urge them to say in its constitution that it is voluntary only and nobody is forcing anybody to be involved.”

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