They were once the beating heart of our communities; for generations Saturdays were incomplete without a trip to the high street and a wander around the town centre. Then, out-of-town retail parks, online shopping, the rise of the charity shop and “pound” store sparked massive change.
Independent shops struggled, big names moved out and while beleaguered town centres have tried to fight back, the high street has never really recovered.
One attempt to breathe fresh life into Scotland’s town centres came in the form of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
Launched almost ten years ago – just as the financial crisis started to bite – BIDs brought groups of businesses together to share ideas and resources, and create initiatives designed to draw people back to their town centre.
Today there are 70 BIDs either existing or in the process of being set up in Scotland, involving around 15,000 businesses.
While Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, agrees they have gone some way to making a difference, he believes they simply couldn’t go far enough.
Left to plough on alone, often with little support from the public sector, small business owners often had the passion to provoke change but not the expertise and time needed to make a difference.
Now, according to Prentice, it’s time for a far more robust approach.
He is programme director for a more expansive “second generation” form of BID, designed to harness the power of some of the biggest businesses operating in our town centres, involve more intense public sector input and inspire greater support from local communities.
With everyone working in harmony, these “super BIDs” could see town centres reborn as places to shop and live, where people might visit a health clinic, go to the gym or drop children off at a nursery housed in what might once have been the high street bank, building society or long-gone department store.
With new services and facilities – perhaps even supported accommodation for the elderly and low cost student homes – retailers will almost certainly follow.
This new “joined-up” approach is already being explored.
Prentice has been engaging with banks and utility businesses, urging them to dig into corporate social responsibility strategies and reflect on how offering property or the expertise of staff would not just help to reboot the heart of the town centre, but bring benefits to their own business.
“The current BID model is small scale, we have to think bigger,” he says, adding that local authorities which left BIDs to work in isolation need to rethink drastically their approach too, and become far more involved.
“With a bit more nurture and partnership we can see how the original BID model can be used to greater effect, using existing legislation and all of the learning to date, and adding in a wider range of participants,” he says.
It’s a win-win situation, suggests Prentice. On one hand, private sector giants such as banks and utility providers can tick social responsibility boxes and boost customer loyalty through being seen as a force for good in the community, while the town centre becomes a more vibrant place to be.
“New partnerships will be flexible and tailored to meet local opportunity, priority and need,” says Prentice, adding that transport operators and public organisations which focus on tourism, recycling and the environment all have a part to play.
No longer flying solo, small business owners’ BID payments will be boosted by additional public and corporate funds, loans and grants, giving them the financial clout to make real change.
That could lead to a BID taking over entire shopping centres from remote landlords, or transforming empty retail units for community use, such as libraries and childcare facilities.
The more positive vibe would kick start greater community involvement in the form of volunteering and fundraising, suggests Prentice.
“Quite simply it is about a refreshed and more structured corporate-community-public partnership vision, all hands to the pump, taking an equal strain,” he adds.
This supersize BID approach is already being explored in Largs and Lanark, while in North Ayrshire the council is keen to buy Irvine’s Rivergate shopping centre in a
£55 million deal which it says will be used to regenerate the town centre.
So, could we soon be going back to the future, to when town centres really were at the heart of community life?
“Ask people about their town centre. They’ll say it used to be good but that was the old days,” says Prentice.
“Now it’s time to do something about it.”
Need help in the workplace? Why not adopt an intern?
Comment: Ian Davison Porter on the success of the BIDs model
Nearly 11 years on, and despite the ongoing austerity programme, the financial challenges and economic conditions, there has been no let-up in local groups, community councils and trusts wanting information from BIDs Scotland on the Business Improvement District (BID) model and coming forward to develop a BID for their area.
There are now 38 BIDs in operation with a further 26 being developed, with others waiting for the November funding window to open.
The BIDs in Scotland now involve more than 10,500 businesses investing over £41.3 million and leveraging in over £19.6m (since 2008) in the local economy.
Critically more than 80 jobs have been created with a further 200 (estimated) annual employment positions generated.
Working with Adopt an Intern, 18 internships have allowed graduates to gain vital work experience and enhance their future career and employment opportunities.
Businesses have invested and worked collaboratively towards a shared future.
The range of projects has also developed over the years and while there are the familiar markets, events and improvement programmes, the BIDs have moved on to deliver projects such as the Discover Dunblane Education for Life and Work programme in partnership with Dunblane High School, Essential Edinburgh Homeless Navigator Project in partnership with Police Scotland and the Cyrenians, Elgin’s Youth Drink Aware Project and Enterprising Bathgate’s after-school activities programme with Bathgate Thistle Community Football Club, West Lothian Council, Active Schools and Balbardie and St Mary’s Primary School, to mention just a few.
The Scottish BIDs model has delivered significant progress and established strong foundations.
It is recognised around the world from North America to Australia, with good friends and colleagues in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the rest of the UK.
Ultimately the success of BIDs is decided at the ballot box and with 14 successful renewal ballots it would suggest that businesses value the work and impact of their local BIDs.
Recognition from our peers and colleagues elsewhere is a testament to the work being done by the BIDs.
Aberdeen Inspired is European BIDs Champion 2017 (Berlin), British BIDs Champion 2017 and runner up in the UK and Northern Ireland BIDs awards.
Falkirk was the winner in the UK and Northern Ireland awards while Essential Edinburgh was also a champion at the British BIDs awards.
Priming Scotland for the future
Comment: James McClafferty on our approach to the digital dimension
I’ve spent a lot of this year talking about Scotland’s digital future and the infrastructure we need to underpin business growth and community resilience in the information age. For an ambitious nation, brimming with determination and entrepreneurial spirit and a growing roster of digital successes, my plea is simple – we deserve the best connectivity the world has to offer.
At the moment, mainland Europe is leaving the UK in the dust when it comes to digital connectivity.
Given the clear correlation between connectivity and prosperity, as well as the economic challenges that lie ahead of us after Brexit, it’s clear that burying our heads in the sand and “making do” with the country’s existing Victorian-age copper networks is no longer an option.
As the end of 2017 approaches, a number of key developments in Scotland’s digital landscape offer us hope for a future where ultrafast connectivity is a given, not a nice to have.
As an alternative digital infrastructure provider, CityFibre has a huge stake in shaping how Scotland is able to face the new digital age – bringing new, future-proof full-fibre to Scotland’s cities and helping to make copper-based connectivity a thing of the past.
So far, four of Scotland’s cities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Stirling – have received a transformational next-generation, full-fibre boost, with even more people set to benefit after our recent announcement of a strategic partnership with Vodafone to deliver ultrafast gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband to up to five million UK homes and businesses by 2025.
This is a huge leap forward for Scotland’s digital capabilities and our company’s plans to create a full-fibre Britain.
As a result of this type of investment, Scotland’s reputation as a key digital player is on the rise. We’ve had global tech giants such as Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Technologies, praising our capabilities and an ever-growing presence of global leaders like Amazon and Selex ES expanding their businesses by investing in Scottish premises.
At the start of this year, Think Analytics, Cloudgine and Raspberry Pi joined the likes of SkyScanner and Rockstar North as the top Scottish tech businesses to watch, with even more businesses emerging since.
However, in an interconnected world where relocation is an increasingly easy decision for businesses to make and execute, retaining talented businesses has never been so difficult.
This means we need to keep our foot firmly on the pedal and continue to deploy state-of-the-art digital infrastructure so that businesses and their employees have everything they need to thrive right here, in Scotland.
Thankfully, the widespread roll-out of full-fibre is a key focus for our government, which has also appreciated the fact that digital is the way forward for Scotland.
Launching initiatives such as R100 (the Reaching 100 per cent Programme which aims to extend the availability of the superfast broadband infrastructure to all premises in Scotland by 2021), engaging in the broadband conversation with local councils, as well as backing independent providers like CityFibre, suggests we have a shared objective, and what’s shaping up to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to bringing full-fibre to the whole country.
Scotland has better positioned itself to overcome its digital demons this year and I’m proud that CityFibre has been a key driving force in helping it do so.
For the first time we can be optimistic and look to our growing, full-fibre network for security and certainty. What better way to start the new year than knowing that a future laden with resilient connectivity that is built to last, is within touching distance.
This article appears in the AUTUMN 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. Further information about Vision Scotland here.