The Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP) features the work that Business Improvement Districts have been doing to support local economic growth and community engagement across Scotland.

There has been much debate in recent years on how Scotland can best adapt to changing circumstances in order to guarantee prosperity, fairness and sustainable development. One widely shared response has been to focus on the role of communities and how they can promote local development, engagement and wellbeing. Such notions have also helped to inform Scottish Government policy, as expressed through the Town Centre Action Plan, the Community Empowerment Act and the proposed Land Reform Bill, which together seek to strengthen the role of community groups and local business in regeneration and development.

At the heart of this movement are Scotland’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which since 2006 have been making a difference to an increasing number of communities and local economies across the country. A BID is a partnership between local businesses, statutory authorities, and other local groups to deliver services and projects above and beyond those of local councils. These are funded from a compulsory levy of eligible local businesses, following a successful ballot to establish a BID in the area.

BIDs took off in the United States in the late 1970s, although they were originally developed in Canada in the late sixties. While they are now found throughout the world, the legislation governing them in Scotland is unique. Under planning legislation passed in 2006 and subsequently, Scottish BIDs are not restricted to towns and city centres, but can comprise rural areas, industrial parks, and specific themes or sectors such as tourism and food & drink.

Since 2008, when the first Scottish BID was established in Bathgate, the number of BIDs has grown steadily, with more set up each year. There are now over 40 BIDs in operation and development across the country, from Lerwick to Largs. The majority are town or city BIDs; however several are pioneering innovative new models. As Ian Davison Porter, Director of BIDs Scotland, commented to the CSPP: “The Loch Ness and Inverness Tourism BID is the first true tourism BID this side of the pond, while a proposed Food & Drink BID [in East Lothian] could be the first in the world”. In July this year a group of East Lothian businesses formally launched their proposal for a Food and Drink BID, togreat media interest.

What impact are these BIDs having? According to the organisation’s report on the first six years of activity in Scotland, by 2013 BIDs had generated £34 million of investment in local economies and communities, with almost half of this coming from leveraged outside investment. Added to this was the creation, directly or indirectly, of an estimated 270+ jobs. With the growth of BIDs since then, this economic impact is likely to have increased. For example the Enterprising Bathgate BID estimates that the business community has invested over £2 million in a local premises improvement scheme, a 7:1 ratio to every pound invested from the BID levy. This and other BID projects appear to have proved popular, and in March 2013 Enterprising Bathgate was overwhelmingly ratified by levy payers to continue work for a second five year period. Indeed, every BID established in Scotland has since won its renewal ballot at the culmination of the first term in operation.

Ian Davison Porter suggests that the importance of BIDs goes beyond hard numbers to the “intangibles”: increasing civic pride, local capacity and energy, and community partnership. In addition to supporting local businesses with tailored services, projects and improvements, many BIDs work with community groups and local authorities to revitalise town and city centres. Such efforts can include support for conservation, shop front improvement, community policing, and the organisation of local events such as Elgin’s recent Scottish Theme Day and Queensferry’s Forth Bridges Festival.

Malcom Brown, Chair of Queensferry Ambition BID, is passionate about the difference the BID has made to the town since its establishment in 2012. At the BIDs Gathering in Perth earlier this year he told of how his BID had engaged the community, with local clubs, churches and schools among the membership. Activities to transform Queensferry have included creating a new ‘What’s On’ app, an events series, school engagement, sponsoring local charities, holding awards, welcoming visitors from cruise ships, and promoting the community-led redesign of the town centre. According to a recent resident survey, the BID has marked a “before and after” in local attitudes towards the town, he said.  

In the context of a perceived upswing in citizen engagement in Scotland, Ian feels that BIDs are expanding onto fertile ground. “There isn’t a BID in every town we go to, however wherever we go there is a local group of people trying to do something,” he explained. The legislation in Scotland requires BIDs to be formed with broad local support. First, a working group usually comprising members of the local authority and business community draw up a proposal on the BID area, liability for the compulsory levy, and the services and projects to be delivered with the investment raised. A ballot of all liable levy payers in the proposed BID area is then held. To formally establish the BID, over 50% of both total rateable value and individual businesses in the proposed BID area must vote in favour, on a minimum turnout of 25% for both categories.

Not every proposed BID wins its ballot to be established however, and there remain many areas of Scotland without a BID. Malcom Brown of Queensferry Ambition explained that not everyone is initially receptive to the proposal for a new BID in their area, and that for success it is important to involve local groups and highlight that a BID “is not just for the businesses, it’s for the community…they want to see the town successful”.

For Ian the key challenge to expanding the number of BIDs is to raise awareness of the particularities of the model in Scotland and what it can deliver. This means speaking directly to community groups, local businesses and public agencies, and bringing them together. “A BID has the staffing and local finance to support a strong local partnership, with the expertise of these groups involved. This can drive economic growth and community empowerment, creating local jobs, supporting businesses and bringing about improvement and change” he argued.

The Scottish Government has expressed agreement with this view, and both the present and previous administrations have given support to the BIDs model. Alex Neil MSP, the current Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities & Pensioners’ Rights, told the BIDs Gathering in March: “Over the past seven years, BIDs have played a significant role in the regeneration of many parts of Scotland, supporting economic growth and strengthening communities. Central to its success is strong leadership and partnership between local authority, business and community interests.”

He added, “Having witnessed the success of BIDs, I encourage leaders here to consider how they can benefit from BIDs”.

In the next few years BIDs plan to widen and deepen their impact in Scotland, and it is hoped the number of BIDs will treble to 150. Certainly since their establishment seven years ago, these local partnerships have emerged to become a key component in the movement to regenerate and develop Scotland’s communities from the bottom up.  


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