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Hampstead’s BID – high street saviour or PR flannel?

12 October, 2018

Jimmy McGrath

TONY Blair’s government first introduced the Business Improvement District (BID) in 2004, heralding the public-private partnerships as the saviours of flagging town centres.

To their critics, they were nothing more than secretive quangos sucking millions of pounds away from rate-paying businesses with little or no gain.

There were questions about public accountability and suspicions that financial interests would trump neighbourhood needs.

Jimmy McGrath has not been in Hampstead long. A former Camden Town landlord, he took over the King William IV pub in Hampstead a couple of years ago.

He came with fresh eyes on the Hampstead BID and concluded it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Result: a summons and an appearance today at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court.

Of the BID, Mr McGrath asks: “What does it do?” When asked, the company’s chief executive reels off a vague list including pavement washing, hanging baskets and behind the scenes lobbying. A newsletter is sent out.

A coherent argument can be made for taking a rake from larger businesses and chain stores to help improve a high street. But can charging smaller, less secure businesses be good for the high street?

In Hampstead, the BID is even sending out bills to a primary school.

The BID system has, arguably, become most entrenched in Camden Town where Camden Town Unlimited has maintained the support of many businesses.

This has not prevented several high profile closures on the high street.

Nationwide, Snappy Snaps, Waitrose, Carphone Warehouse, the Black Cap – all within a minute’s walk – are gone and not replaced.

Walking down the high street today you could almost be transported back to the 2008 banks crash apocalypse that triggered the closure of so many businesses.

Camden’s first taste of the BID system was in Holborn when an organisation emerged under the banner “InMidTown”. Its main target appeared to be the rebranding of the an area that sat awkwardly between the City and the West End.

Flags appeared on lampposts, bearing the new name that had, for a number of years, been used by estate agents hoping to promote the area’s central London location and by hotels looking to attract US tourists. Residents criticised it as a laughable “Americanisation”, comparing it to the failed attempt to rebrand Fitzrovia as “Noho”, by the Candy property developer brothers. The lower end of Haverstock Hill was, somewhat embarrassingly, rebranded as “Steele’s Village”.

A publicity machine was in full force when the Hampstead BID began its campaign to win over businesses with a “yes” vote in 2016. Two thirds of businesses balloted ended up voting in favour of the project, but would they do so now?

It claimed it would invest £1.2million in improvements to Hampstead over five years. Businesses are rightly wondering where their money is going.

Did the BID overstate its hand?

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