St Albans councillor says near 50-50 split in BID vote ‘not a ringing endorsement’

Cllr Simon Grover has questioned the close BID vote in St Albans

Cllr Simon Grover has questioned the close BID vote in St Albans - Credit: Archant

Fears that St Albans firms will be hit with a form of ‘stealth tax’ have come to fruition – despite a narrow margin of just five votes.

The proposal to create a Business Improvement District (BID), which will give a £2.6 million boost to the city centre, has been given the go-ahead following a controversial ballot,

The money will be provided through an additional levy of 1.8 per cent to be imposed upon about 530 businesses and other bodies in the designated business area from April 1 next year.

The result declared by Michael Lovelady, the district council’s head of legal services, last Friday, showed there was a very low response to the BID proposal, with a turn-out of 36.9 per cent. 97 votes were lodged in favour and 92 against.

But despite the close result, the scheme scraped through as both a straight majority in votes and a majority based on rateable values were needed for it to be approved.

Those values - which also take in council-owned property and larger stores - added up to £6,627,750 for the scheme, and £5,180,250 against it.

Among those questioning the scheme is Paul Hargreaves, owner of Mail Boxes Etc (MBE) in Holywell Hill, who described it as a form of stealth tax, as part of the additional money collected from businesses will be used to pay for cleaning and maintaining the city centre.

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He warned that where the BID has been introduced elsewhere in the country, “councils are finding new ways to subsidise essential services.”

After the result was revealed, Paul told the Herts Advertiser: “It’s such a shame it was passed by such a small number. Out of 530 voters, only 97 voted for the BID – that is very small, and hardly a ringing endorsement for the scheme.”

Paul said that now the initiative had gone through, “we will have to get behind it, but I hope [it] will be used as a positive, and we see the changes that have been promised.”

A thrilled Michael Weaver, a past president of the St Albans Chamber of Commerce, described the successful ballot as “a dream come true for me. I was in Truro years ago, and saw how successful it was and how vibrant it had been made by the BID.

“It is going to be a tremendous boost for St Albans and the surrounding area.”

Commenting on the low turnout, Michael said: “There is apathy, as it is new to this area, but every cathedral city has this and St Albans is lagging behind.”

Simon Grover, the district councillor for St Peter’s Ward, which includes the scheme’s area, said he hoped the promised improvements would become apparent in the city centre.

He advised those taking the scheme forward to consider the smaller, independent businesses which would be paying the additional levy, and ensure they also benefited from it.

Cllr Grover added: “Most businesses have told me they aren’t that interested in it and with a near 50-50 split in the votes, that is not a ringing endorsement.”

The 1.8 per cent levy will deliver a five-year programme of marketing, events and schemes to improve the city’s appearance. Its proposers have also promised an increase in visitor numbers.

The designated business area includes St Peter’s Street, High Street, Chequer Street and Holywell Hill as well as side roads in the central part of the city.

It also takes in two shopping centres - The Maltings and Christopher Place - along with the cathedral and the council’s offices.

Richard Marrett of the St Albans City Centre Partnership, which launched its campaign to create the scheme earlier this year, said members were “delighted the BID has been voted in and we look forward to working with all businesses in the area to further improve our city centre.

“We strongly believe that the best way of improving the local business environment is to give all of the businesses, large and small, the ability to do it, and the BID will provide an ideal platform to achieve our common goals.”