Mill Road exhibition

Exhibition posterToday I went along to the Council’s Mill Road Exhibition  at Bharat Bhavan. I was immediately offered a lovely hot cup of tea – which was very much appreciated given the cold weather! There were a number of stands with information about many of the local community and residents groups in the area, as well as proposals for a traders association; and in the middle of the room was a giant map of Mill Road where people could jot down their ideas on sheets of tracing paper (which could be placed over the map) There were also some beautiful paintings and drawings of Mill Road by a couple of local artists.

Exhibition boardsIt was great to see lots of ideas from locals and there were all sorts of suggestions ranging from peoples ideas for more green space around Mill Road and a regular local market through to thoughts on the 20mph zone and improving the area for cyclists. I spoke to Ceri (Mill Road Co-ordinator and organiser of the event) and she told me that it had been well attended over the two days – and judging by the many post-it notes I saw this was most certainly the case! I jotted down my ideas, which included widening the pavement on the northern edge of Mill Road on the town side of the bridge (opposite Arjuna, Fagito’s, Nip-In et al) as it’s not currently wide enough for two people to pass each other without one of them having to step into the road. I’d also like to see cafes and shops being allowed to have tables and chairs outside (even if just one or two tables) as this would give people more of an opportunity to interact with and chat to each other and make the area even more welcoming in the summer months.

Exhibition boardI also drew a design for a new housing co-operative which could go on the site of the Mill Road Depot (which is moving at some point in the next few years). This is an idea that was suggested by a number of  people in the Local Plan consultations last year and I think it would really work for the whole community – especially as there’s a huge lack of affordable housing around Mill Road. I envisage something like a mixture of flats for single people and couples, and houses for families (little or no shared housing) on the back part of the site (furthest from Mill Road); this would have lots of green space and could house around 150 people. There would also be plenty of shared community space and at the front of the site a meeting area/hall that the co-operative would share with the whole community for free, as well as an upstairs area that could have free/low cost office space for local businesses/home-workers. There would also be a large outdoor area that could host community events such as barbecues, regular markets and other community activities. Bharat Bhavan, Regent College and other non-council buildings would of course be retained. By their very nature co-operatives are green and sustainable communities that are self-run, so the community would have the opportunity to shape and innovate their own housing and community space. In fact I suspect this deserves a blog post all of its own (!) so more on this another time.

I was glad I went along to the exhibition and I now have lots more ideas for Mill Road. If you missed out you can contact Ceri (millroadcoordinator@gmail.com) for more information. I will write another blog post soon about what will happen to the ideas and how to submit any other suggestions you may have. I think the exhibition was a really good idea and it has given people the chance to have real input into their local area.

Who’s doing your bidding…?

It has been proposed that Cambridge set up a Business Improvement District (BID) in order to help City centre businesses. I had not heard of the ‘BID’ concept until just a couple of weeks ago but it turns out they are not a new idea – in fact, discussions about the Cambridge BID (CBBID) have been happening for some time now and BIDs have actually been in existence in the UK since 2003.

Originally an idea that began in America in the 1970’s, a BID is a partnership made up of a Local Authority and businesses, with the aim of developing projects that benefit the trading environment within a specified area.

The concept of a BID centres around each business (above a certain value threshold – £20,000 rateable value proposed for Cambridge) within a pre-determined BID area paying an annual levy (a percentage of the rateable value of their business – normally 1%) into a central pot. This is run by a separate not-for-profit company (which has a board of BID levy payers, and a management team) and these funds are spent on things that will help those businesses – so long as the spending is not on areas that are already the responsibility of others (like the relevant Local Authority). A BID requires approval from the relevant Local Authority and is also voted on by the potential levy payers in the area.

The kinds of things that a BID might pay for could include promoting the BID area to visitors, better Christmas lights, making the City safe, joint networking etc. The CBBID is proposing various projects that fall under four main themes: Pride & Promotion, Welcoming & Vibrant, Clean & Safe and Business Support. The CBBID Business Plan has more information about what they’re proposing.

Is Mill Road included in the CBBID area?

The CBBID area covers the City centre and parts of East Road, but doesn’t actually include Mill Road itself. On the face of it this seems like a good thing, as I suspect a number of Mill Road businesses would struggle to afford the levy payments (especially in such tough economic times); and also the vast majority of traders on Mill Road are independents and so a scheme that suits City centre businesses may not be right for an area like Mill Road.

In any case, Mill Road traders could decide to set up their own BID in the future, if they wanted – though, as I will discuss later in this article, they may not have much choice.

Will the CBBID affect Mill Road?

Even though Mill Road is not included in the CBBID area it does not mean it wouldn’t be affected by its’ implementation. For example, if businesses in the City Centre get together to network with each other and promote themselves, could Mill Road end up getting left behind? I do hope not. But it’s probably just as well the Council have recently appointed a new Mill Road Co-ordinator, as it looks like we’ll need her help and support to promote Mill Road and ensure that it remains an important part of the City of Cambridge.

One of the key parts of the CBBID (and a pre-requisite for any BID) is the delivery of a retail crime partnership. This sounds like a good thing, as we need to tackle shoplifters across the City. But if shoplifters in the City centre are targeted by the BID (e.g. in the form of exclusion notices, which ban troublemakers from certain businesses) will they then be displaced to areas like Mill Road (especially the Petersfield side, as this borders the CBBID area) increasing crime on the outskirts of the City? It’s worth noting that the CBBID proposal includes the sharing of information through an online database and a two-way radio link to Council CCTV and the Police (all delivered by Cambridge Business Against Crime – CAMBAC). Though I assume CAMBAC members will still be able to access all these services, even if they’re not part of the BID.

There could potentially be some positive outcomes, if the BID goes ahead. For example, in some BID areas the BID has liaised with the owners of town centre car parks and got them to reduce car parking charges by up to 30%, which has meant more people can now afford to go and shop in their town centres – affordable parking in Cambridge is an ongoing issue, perhaps a CBBID could help achieve the same here? (though it should be noted that such a proposal is not currently part of the CBBID). BIDs in other areas have also organised (and paid for) city-wide festivals and events, which are normally aimed at promoting specific types of business.

There could be benefits for Mill Road itself – any extra visitors to the City centre (not that there’s really room for many more – it’s difficult enough for those of us that do visit to get around the city on any Saturday afternoon, due to sheer numbers of people!) might be inclined to walk a little further and visit areas like Mill Road if they’re in the City anyway. In fact, it could well be Mill Road’s uniqueness and independence that end up making it a more attractive proposition to shoppers than the City Centre itself (!). Indeed the City centre has already been labelled as the UK’s number one clone town – according to a report which claims it does not have enough independent shops – and some critics of the BID idea say that they turn BID areas into clones of each other.

What about displacement issues?

On one hand, the BID could be good for Cambridge as it would allow various improvements to be made to the City centre and will genuinely help businesses there tackle issues that affect their day to day trading, as well as enable them to procure services more economically. But on the other hand there are valid concerns about displacement issues and the potential effects there could be on businesses and residents outside of the BID area.

Journalist Anna Minton wrote a book in 2006, published by the Royal institute of Chartered Surveyors, called What kind of world are we building? The privatisation of public space. There is a chapter dedicated to BIDs and as part of her research she spoke to existing UK BID managers and directors. Here’s what some of them had to say about BIDs:

“It’s not my job to care about displacement. We have to be a little bit selfish, we’re business-led, we’re funded by business so we have to improve the area for them.”

“Am I going to pretend part of the response isn’t to displace the problem to somewhere else? No I’m not. If King’s Cross changes and the problems move onto Euston then they’ll address it there.”        

In spite of the above, I don’t think that the majority of Cambridge businesses (or the Council) are as ruthless. Having heard some of them speak about the CBBID recently I think most of them believe (rightly or wrongly) that it will be a good thing for our City – not just for them. A task force, businesses and staff at the Council have also been working on developing the CBBID for some months now. However, this still doesn’t necessarily ease worries about the bigger picture.

Some people have spoken out about about the CBBID and its long term effects, expressing concerns that BIDs developing in central areas will result in displacement issues, which will in turn mean outer areas will eventually have no option but to form a BID to tackle their new issues; and that soon the UK will be full of BIDs, which will effectively mean that businesses will be paying for, and controlling, services across the UK that Councils should be providing – it’s worth noting that although BID’s must only provide additional services, BID guidance available suggests that they may still simply be more of the same service that a Council already provides (e.g. extra street cleaning). If businesses are in control of these services, how will residents have a say?

There is also concern that this is actually moving towards Government and Councils cutting their own funding in the long term, as responsibility for paying for them moves on to businesses. Looking at other examples in the UK, Council posts such as district managers and town centre co-ordinators (our equivalent might be a role such as the Mill Road Co-ordinator) have been cut in (and around) BID areas, once the BID is in place.

Where can I find out more?

To help you make up your own mind about BIDs and the CBBID (please do – rather than just going along with what I’ve said) I suggest checking out the following:

There’s a lot of information available, on the internet and elsewhere, so do explore!

What next for the CBBID?

Cambridge City Council will be discussing a report about the CBBID at their Strategy & Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting on 3rd October, and deciding how to use their votes on the CBBID. This is a public meeting. There is also due to be a ballot of (potential) levy-paying businesses in the CBBID area from 4th-31st October, with the result being announced on 1st November.

I think the kinds of questions that the Council will need to ask during their scrutiny and risk assessment of the CBBID proposal, and to help them decide whether to agree to it, or not, are:

  • If the CBBID results in increased crime in other parts of Cambridge (e.g. Mill Road) what resources (financial and otherwise) does the Council have in place to tackle this? Will extra resource be available from the Police, if needed?
  • We now have a Mill Road Co-ordinator. But what else can be done to help Mill Road? And how will the Council help promote other parts of Cambridge that are outside the BID area (e.g. Mitchams Corner, Hills Road, the Eastern Gate)?
  • The BID would include networking amongst BID members, but how can we make sure all Cambridge businesses network with each other (rather than in separate ‘pockets’)?
  • Are there any safety/crime related benefits for CBBID members, over and above those already provided to any member of CAMBAC?
  • The general BID criteria says that small businesses should be excluded (from paying the levy) if the cost of collection would make their inclusion uneconomic. What contingencies are there for businesses that are required to pay the levy but can’t afford it?
  • The current CBBID Business Plan gives a brief overview of finances involved. When will the full breakdown, cash flow and management costs (as is required of BID Business Plans) be available?
  • What are the potential long-term displacement issues of the CBBID? How can we tackle these?
  • Displacement issues are likely to bring a requirement for increased Council spending in other parts of Cambridge. Does the Council have the funds for this?
  • Is the implementation of the CBBID genuinely in the best interests of the people of Cambridge?

It will be interesting to see what Councillors voting on the CBBID proposals make of it and what they feel the important issues are. They are voted for by us – the residents – and we need (re)assurance that they are considering all views and acting in the best interests of the whole City, not just part of it.

I am not sure who the CBBID idea came from, but the Governments own Local Authority guidance I have found has not helped:

It is important that the BID should not look like it is being initiated and run by the local authority. Even if the BID is part-funded or started by the local authority it should be seen to be private sector led”.

Even though at a recent public meeting, Cambridge City Council’s leader dismissed claims that the City centre would be run as a private company and for the retailers as nonsense, guidance is clear that BIDs are to be set up as private companies and existing BID managers have said that BIDs are for benefit of business and that they act in the interests of those businesses. Indeed when the BID concept was first brought over to the UK in the 1990’s, it was marketed to our Government as the way to move retail back towards town centres.

I am not sure if my musings and findings on BIDs have actually been helpful for those of you still trying fathom it all. This blog article has been a little (actually a lot!) longer than intended, as I have discovered new bits of information whilst writing and changed my mind several times on what I think of the CBBID proposals and how Mill Road could be affected. However, it hopefully goes some way towards informing the debate about the CBBID – though as I’ve already said, please do make up your own minds.

As this blog suggests, there’s something about Mill Road – we need to work together to make sure our unique and vibrant area thrives, regardless of what others are doing, and we want to continue to be an important part of a City that people (most importantly) want to live in and work in.