In little more than two months time businesses and other organisations in Lancaster city centre will be faced with an important choice.
They must decided whether to support plans by the Lancaster and District Chamber of Commerce to designate Lancaster city centre as a Business Improvement District (BiD).
Under the scheme, around 330 businesses and organisations with a rateable value of more than £10,000 a year would pay an extra 1.5 per cent on their business rates.
A BiD manager would be employed at a cost of £30,000 a year, and the money, expected to amount to £600,000 over three years, would go into a pot which would be used to pay for improvements to the city centre environment.
It could help fund things like seasonal promotions, new festivals, better signage, action to help fill empty shop units, additional street cleaning, extra street furniture, floral displays and free parking days.
A ballot of properties which would be affected will take place from November 1-29, and if a majority vote in favour, and those voting in favour represent a greater total rateable value than those voting against, the scheme will be imposed on everyone.
But if the views expressed by Joe Stewart, owner of Burt’s Butchers on Market Street are anything to go by, supporters of the BiD will have their work cut out to convince some to get behind their plans.
Joe says the levy would cost him an extra £150 a year.
“I think it’s disgraceful, I honestly do,” he says.
“Times are very hard, it’s a struggle as it is and rates should be going down not up.
“I pay £9,000 a year in rates, surely that’s enough?
“This is to pay for something the council should be doing anyway.”
Mihai Ioan, owner of the Humbugs sweet shop in Marketgate, shares Joe’s concerns. “There is a bit of a downturn, so people have no money,” he says.
“We survive at the moment but I could not afford this.
“It’s a huge rent here – for me it’s about looking at how I can stay here.”
As chairman of the BiD steering group, Paul Cusimano, owner of the Joseph and Co fashion retailer on Cheapside, makes a strong argument in favour of the scheme, pointing to the success of similar BiDs in other areas, including Preston.
Paul traces the routes of the BiD back to a presentation by a city centre manager from Huddersfield three or four years ago to members of the then Lancaster Independents Network.
They heard how a match funding scheme in the town, to which businesses and the council contributed, had funded improvements including a free shuttle bus from the bus station to the centre for pensioners.
“We were buzzing about it,” says Paul.
The seeds of the BiD were sewn and the independents network then joined forces with the chamber of commerce.
“Councils can only do so much and in the current climate their resources are being cut back,” says Paul.
“The sceptics will say ‘if you raise money they will cut services’ but that is not the idea, it is about providing something over and above what is already available.
“Lancaster, for many years, seems to have muddled along.
“These are tough economic times and then you also have the growth of internet shopping – businesses are suffering and shutting.
“But things like festivals, which would be funded by the BiD, would bring more people into town.
“It can only be good to have a tool like this to improve the city for businesses, residents and visitors.
“If the city is perceived as a great place to come to then one way or another most businesses will benefit and more will open here.”
Paul also believes that the BiD could help to combat any negative impact the proposed £100m retail-led Centros scheme along the canal corridor might have on the existing centre.
“It could have a major impact on businesses on streets like Common Garden Street, which would be furthest point away from the Centros development,” he says.
“If Centros come that’s enough reason it itself to try for the scheme.
“It will only be a small amount of money each year to try and better the city – for me it would be £200 – it’s an investment like an advert.
“BiDs elsewhere have been successful and the majority get re-voted in.”
Last month, city councillors, who have agreed to stump up £40,000 to pay for getting the BiD of the ground, raised concerns that two street ambassadors proposed as part of the scheme could duplicate work already done by Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs).
The idea was that they would provide a ‘meet and greet’ service, steward events and help deal with problems like street begging and drinking, flyposting, graffiti, stickers and illegal signs.
But Paul says the BiD steering group had already been considering whether to remove the ambassadors from the scheme and the posts have now been deleted.
As well as shops, pubs and restaurants, public bodies including the city and county councils and the police, would be involved in the scheme, and Paul says they have been sent regular newsletters and a questionnaire to keep them informed about progress.
He says that BiD members would be able to put ideas forward on how to spend the money raised and that these would then be voted on by a BiD board to decide whether they should go ahead.
But first, they need to be convinced that the scheme will help them, and Paul says the final BiD business plan would be crucial in winning support.
“They will have to look at the plan and hopefully see that it will benefit them individually as well as the city as a whole,” he says.
Jonathan Banks-Lyon owner of the H Banks Lyon shoe shop in Lancaster, has joined a string of businesses including The Dukes, Mitchell’s and Arteria in backing the BiD.
“Other cities like Preston have done it and if we do not follow suit we will be left behind,” he says.
“We are hoping it will get more people through our doors; it’s not easy in today’s market, so anything that can help is welcome.”
It remains to be seen how charities will vote on the BiD. Even if they are exempt from paying part or all of their business rates they would have to pay a separate BiD levy based on their rateable value.
Lynne Stafford, chief executive of CancerCare, which offers a one-to-one therapy service in the city centre, is backing the BiD.
“If we have a lively, vibrant town centre, that makes everything better for everybody, including the people we support,” she says.
“It is known to improve people’s health and could mean we will eventually see fewer people. If there are good parking facilities and shops, and the streets are safe, that also makes it easier for people using our city centre service.”
Lynne adds that the charity, which has a main base on Slyne Road, relies on public support for 95 per cent of its funding.
“A vibrant business community will mean there is more money in the district and that could potentially help us in terms of fundraising,” she says.
But other charities on the list were more guarded about whether they would vote for the BiD.
Hugh Jobber, regional director for the North and West of England for Addaction, which has premises on Great John Street, and helps people struggling with drink and drugs, said: “As a not-for-profit organisation, funding Addaction’s essential work in communities is often difficult, with resources being extremely limited.
“But as a proud member of Lancaster’s local business community, we support any affordable attempt to promote local regeneration.”
The YMCA, which is based at Fleet Square, declined to comment.
Responding to the suggestion that Lancaster City Council should be providing some of the services which would be provided through the BiD, Coun Janice Hanson, the council’s cabinet member for the economy, stressed that business rates went to the Government – they are redistributed to councils using a formula taking into account an area’s population.
“BiDs provide additional money for spending on extra services, as opposed to those which the city council has to provide,” she said.
Coun Hanson added that information had been provided to the BiD team about the services currently provided by the council.