This month has clearly been dominated by the reopening of a wave of retail outlets on our high streets in England, although in Wales and Scotland that has yet to take place.
For the past three months, the BID community has been immersed in looking after, nurturing and keeping safe our High Streets up and down the British Isles. Many BIDs have kept their Rangers and Security Teams in place and have been working closely with local authorities, the Police and levy payers on business crime. This has allowed the reopening process to be efficient and effective in the last week or so, with striking examples of BIDs providing signage on pavements, apps for queueing, processes for managing queues, along with a whole range of signage and printing support to allow businesses to be COVID secure, ready for the opening on 15th June. The first day of the reopening saw some exuberant examples of the pent-up demand for “retail therapy” and newness in peoples’ lives, along with the need for children’s shoes! By the second day it had very much settled down and at the end of this week life is returning to some level of normality, although footfall is clearly down substantially and there is a huge nervousness among certain groups of the population about safety, security and social distancing.
The reopening has clearly been helped by the £50 million fund for councils across England to prepare for the safe reopening of high streets and other retail spaces. This new money is to support practical measures so businesses can re-open quickly when they are allowed to, staff get back to work and customers return to shops, confident it is safe. Many BIDs have been working with local authorities to make sure this money is spent in the best possible fashion.
As the first lockdown phase of the pandemic recedes, it is very clear that BIDs have had a very positive role to play, as they have worked with hospitals and businesses in bringing organisations together to work in a proactive and positive manner. There have been with stirring examples of hotels providing free accommodation for NHS staff, shops providing free food and support for hospital staff, manufacturers turning to face mask and gown production, and shared delivery van systems for independents.
The big issues that BIDs will be facing over the next months and indeed years as they return to some sort of ‘new normal’ has been the key question of a British BIDs research project, produced with the New Economics Foundation and Nottingham BID and available here. One outcome has made clear that on the whole most people say they still want the same things, they want to shop locally a little more, to use the internet a little less, to use green and public space a little more, but they want to be able to do so safely. BIDs will need to work with all local stakeholders to ensure this happens. However, this ‘new normal’ may look very different across the country. Increased working from home, the reversion to residential, the effect on leisure and tourism, the changing role of service industries and offices, the move toward supporting ‘local’ during the pandemic, the acceleration of online and the changing types of town and city centres will require new aims and objectives and rethought business plans for many BIDs. There will have to be very creative thinking to deal with increased empty units in our towns, as some businesses fail to survive the economic downturn, and we must manage the need for accessible green and public spaces. Good data, evidence, intelligence gathering, and management will allow our towns and cities to become more differentiated, with industrial, seaside, commercial or retail communities changing, as they all start to face very different challenges.
Interestingly these thoughts, and the return to “a kindness economy”, has been developed by Mary Portas in some work that she reinforces here.
On a more mundane and prosaic level, the MHCLG operational support grant for English BIDs had its first batch of allocations distributed to local authorities last week, and some 137 BIDs have received around £3 million. The deadline was 15th May and we are assuming that the next batch for around 130 BIDs will be going out very soon. For the majority of English BIDs, this grant will equal roughly 5% of the billed levy income for the operating year ending in 2019/20. We know from our conversations that for many BIDs this will be a vital lifeline that will keep them going until their levy bills start being paid as more businesses return to normal. Our own research suggests that thus far BIDs have managed to weather the lockdown storm through very efficient financial management, good local authority support and a reasonable number of levy payers continuing to pay their bills because they recognise the value for money of their BID.
On an even more prosaic level, but an important one for quite a few BIDs, is the recent Supreme Court judgement that the sites of cash machines in supermarkets and convenience stores are not separate units for rating purposes but a part of the store in which they are located.. This means that from now on all ATM sites, whether inside or outside supermarkets, convenience stores and other retail premises and other similar types of hereditament such as children’s rides, vending machines, photo booths etc, cannot be separately assessed. All the rates paid from the 1 April 2010 are to be refunded back to the occupying ratepayer. Our discussions with some national levy payers is that whilst they are pleased at the outcome, at least one may not be pressing for the nine year refund for BID levy bills, despite it amounting to over £100,000 for 65 BIDs. We are unsure of the others at the moment.
Whilst many BID staff have been furloughed, it is clear that many have been using their time innovatively. During the lockdown more than 250 BIDs have joined our courses, the Bb Online Academy now has fifteen different training programmes, last week the Certificate in BID Management successfully completed its eleventh cohort, and this week started its 12th! Over 100 students have now taken the programme. A review of the Bb work in lockdown shows just how much learning and development BID staff undertook. And of course there is a plethora of other providers out there; one valuable tool is Barclays Eagle Labs Support Hub which is providing start-ups with virtual events, content and tools and has pulled together a practical and useful series of virtual events, content and tools for start-ups.