Has the time come for Community Improvement Districts?

In the online event, Has the time come for Community Improvement Districts? Power to Change brought together a panel to discuss governance models to enable the formal participation of the community sector in high streets and town centres. The panelists were Phil Prentice, CEO of the Scottish Towns Partnership, Sally-Anne Watkiss from Homebaked, Liam Kelly from Make CIC and Bill Addy, Chair of the BID Foundation and two Business Improvement Districts in Liverpool.

The debate builds on work Power to Change has been leading on high streets, given the concern for high street recovery, continuing uncertainty over the enduring effects of COVID-19, Brexit and national debt. But at its core is the ongoing commitment to reconnect communities with the levers that drive economic development in town centres.

As Power to Change CEO, Vidhya Alakeson said in the webinar, the conversation and an associated discussion paper aims to develop the conversation to move towards defining a model that can work to integrate communities with high streets in both affluent and more deprived areas.

Community Improvement Districts (CID) exist in different forms in Scotland, Canada, the US and South Africa, but there is no definition or model in use in England.  The term borrows from the Business Improvement District (BID) model, in which non-domestic rate payers in a defined area pay a mandatory levy to deliver a set of services and programmes generally aimed at improving the local economy.

BIDs provide a jumping-off point to consider how community-led economic development might be funded and organised, including of course the wider involvement of communities in BIDs themselves. Phil Prentice spoke at the webinar about how Scottish BIDs are explicitly incorporating community anchors and local residents into the process of delivering the local vision and lobbying for change.

In Scotland, these bodies are called CIDs, and they are aided by the Community Empowerment Act and the Landlord Reform Act which embed community rights in town centres. CIDs have developed in Lanark, Stornoway, Carluth and Possilpark, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK, which create an equal partnership of businesses and community organisations within the existing legislation.

Bill Addy also described the particular benefits of non-political organisations to galvanise action at the local level, with community as well as business groups participating side-by-side being the goal. Resident participation in BIDs is not formalised in legislation, but the many examples from the BID world, including the swift Covid-19 response, show how they’re already working with communities and this demonstrates a step forward in the process of knitting together the collective ambition for our places.

There are a range of other mechanisms in existence that could be used to aid the cause of community participation at the local level. Town Councils, Neighbourhood Forums, Civic Societies and Town Teams all to some extent deliver on this promise. The genesis of Groundwork in St Helens in 1981 recognised the need to draw communities, business and local government together into a trust to deliver improvements to places.

The examples described in the webinar by Sally-Anne Watkiss and Liam Kelly show how skilled people can cut through the barriers to set up community-owned businesses that go on to act as a catalysing force for regeneration. These examples are all important because they light the way to a model for town centres which recognises that local change takes place through participation and collective action.

Contributors pointed out that every place is different, and it may be that no single mechanism, model or process can meet the need. New models might even serve to further confuse the local governance landscape. Bill Addy talked about the continuing evolution of city districts, which require local actors to be fleet of foot as the high street landscape changes – BIDs look like long term players but have been present in high streets only since 2004. The BID model is likely to change as the taxation system and high street property market become increasingly unfit for purpose.

One of the most enduring questions is how to fund these models in a sustainable way, with one contributor mentioning the Times Square model in which every resident pays a dollar a year into a ringfenced fund for local improvement. Others pointed to community share issues or a percentage levy on a land value tax. Phil Prentice pointed out that the starting point must be the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’, that the right funding model flows from the right rationale.

The conversation continues, with a range of models and approaches developed further by Centre for London following the feedback from the event and the discussion paper.

For further reading, please see the draft discussion paper, which can be accessed here.

Join us for the rest of the online high streets series:

Who Controls the High Street? | Wednesday 14 October 2pm – 3pm

The event will bring property developers, local authorities and community representatives together to understand how our town centres can be curated for the benefit of all rather than driven by profit alone. Register here.

The New Civic High Street | Wednesday 21 October 1pm – 2pm Webinar, followed by 2pm – 3pm Workshop

An expert panel will set out their vision for the high street of the future and a workshop which follows will involve participants in setting out the new model. Register here