The call comes from Nicky Blanchard, centre Manager of Royal Victoria Place, and Chair of the business group Royal Tunbridge Wells Together.
She was speaking last week at an event to unveil more details of plans to create a Business Improvement District [BID], where town centre retailers, restaurateurs and companies pay an annual levy that would generate £2million for projects over five years.
“Tunbridge Wells is fantastic, but we have not been immune to the economic challenges,” she told the audience.
“We need to make our town different and give people a reason to come here, and to provide experiences and leisure activities. By creating a BID, we can give businesses the power to make significant and sustained improvements to our town.”
The levy rate is to be calculated at 1.25 per cent of the business’s rateable value on April 1 next year. Firms with a rateable value of less than £15,000 will be exempt.
Critics have called the project a ‘band-aid solution’ and ‘unfair’, with a levy cap per individual premises of £5,000 – which could see some smaller firms proportionally paying more.
Further details about plans are set to be announced in the coming weeks, but the Times can reveal that through BID:
- £635,000 would be spent on events
- £303,000 on supporting businesses
- £495,000 on boosting town promotion
- £200,000 improving accessibility, including parking
This will only happen, though, if at least 50 per cent of businesses vote ‘yes’ to the proposal in a ballot that will run from October 11 to November 8. If a ‘yes’ vote is secured, it will start from April 1 and would be reviewed after five years.
Large businesses in Tunbridge Wells to have backed the BID already include AXA, Thomson Snell & Passmore, G Collins & Sons, Baldwins Travel Group, Handelsbanken and Childrensalon.
Some smaller firms have pledged a ‘yes’ vote as well, including Fuggles Beer Café, whose proprietor, Alex Greig, said: “Having a BID is a great way to have some influence as small businesses working together with the aim of delivering goals to benefit us all.”
RTW Together now has a busy few weeks to convince firms who are undecided.
Richard Simm, Manager of the Ragged Trousers pub, told the Times he was ‘optimistically sceptical’ about the proposal. “I’m behind the idea of BIDs and businesses working together, but I do have reservations,” he said. “There will be a cap on some larger businesses, so as a publican I might end up paying 50 per cent of what Sainsbury’s pays because ours will not be capped.
“And how exactly is the money going to be spent? I don’t want to be paying for a Z-list celebrity to be turning on the town’s
Christmas lights. However, I am optimistic, there needs to be extra funding to support the Local & Live Music Festival and Jazz on The Pantiles.
“But it has to be fair – and until I get assurances it is going to be fair, I am not going to vote in favour.”
What is the likely outcome of the vote?
The manager of RTW Together, Karen Pengelly, said she is feeling ‘quietly confident’ about securing a ‘yes’ vote – which would require more than 50 per of the businesses involved to vote in favour. She said discussions would be held with firms who have more than one outlet within the BID zone.
One owner almost certain to vote no is Matthew Sankey, who owns three premises in town under the Sankey’s banner. He said: “I like the idea of having a pot of cash to spend on events, but you can’t base it on business rates.” Ms Pengelly has said ‘there is no plan B’ in the event of a ‘no’ vote and stakeholders would discuss the future direction.
What I have learned working with BIDs
MORE than 300 BIDs have been established across the UK, the nearest being in Maidstone. One Tunbridge Wells trader, better placed than most to comment on the districts, is Peter Allinson.
The founder of Whirligig Toys has seen BIDs established in the three other places he trades in: Canterbury, Chichester and Brighton.
He told the Times: “BIDs work really well when everyone is really involved. The businesses who get the most out of it are the ones who put the most in. It is about choosing the right priorities for the town we are in. It works when shoppers have an experience – they are more likely to come back. I think working together is a good idea. What we have to be careful of is [after some time] businesses doing the job for the council or BID leaders.”
Business leaders talk BID over breakfast [picture by Craig Matthews]