Green councillor questions democratic nature of St Albans BID initiative

PUBLISHED: 17:00 02 February 2016

St Albans city centre

St Albans city centre

Archant

A new initiative aimed at boosting the economy of St Albans city centre has been blasted as "undemocratic" by the local ward councillor.

The campaign to create a Business Improvement District (BID) is intended to attract more visitors to the city centre, enhance the area, generate jobs and offer a voice to businesses.

The £500,000 raised each year will be used to pay for entertainment, street furniture improvements, tackling anti-social behaviour and marketing for the city.

But Green Party councillor Simon Grover, whose St Peter’s ward includes the city centre, has sounded a cautionary note over the possibility of a St Albans BID.

Cllr Grover said: “While I welcome anything that will improve prospects for our high street, especially for local and independent businesses, this proposal throws up some serious questions that need to be addressed.”

Cllr Grover said that if the BID goes ahead, all 500 businesses in the BID zone would have to join, whether they wanted to or not. That means having to contribute 1.8 per cent of their rateable value.

Although the very smallest businesses would be exempt, Cllr Grover questioned the fairness of this scheme.

“Businesses already pay for local services and improvements through their rates and taxes, so some might wonder why they’d need to pay a new tax. Plus there is no sliding scale here, nothing like income tax where the richest pay a higher proportion - it’s a flat rate for everyone. That’s an unfair on smaller businesses, while the chain stores will find it easy to pay.”

Cllr Grover has raised the issue at a recent meeting of the City Neighbourhoods Committee. His other main concern is over the decision-making powers of the BID organisation. “The BID companies say they’ll be spending money to improve the area. But who has democratic oversight of this? What if they do something that local people don’t want? There’s a potential democratic deficit here and it’s something we need to look at carefully.”

But city centre manager Richard Marrett, who is leading the campaign for a BID, has defended the initiative.

“Cllr Grover should be reminded that BIDs have proved to be successful across the country with over 200 currently in place. The BID should not be seen as an additional tax but an investment in our city centre and the positive reaction to the scheme received so far has been overwhelming. Baseline agreements will be entered into by the district council and the BID company to ensure that the levy generated by the BID will be used only to improve existing services.

“In fact, the levy is subject to a sliding scale with each business paying 1.8 per cent of their rateable value. A straight majority vote in numbers and rateable value must be reached thereby effectively giving those businesses with a larger levy a larger vote to reject the scheme.

“With regard to the democratic oversight, in order for the BID to be voted in, a full proposal will be provided later this year for businesses to vote for or against, which the BID company must follow. The entire process is also subject to The Business Improvement Districts (England) Regulations 2004, and I welcome further discussions with all stakeholders of the scheme.”

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