Connell How local authorities engage businesses in their vision of the Big Society is an issue occupying many councillors. Here, Cllr Brian Connell, Cabinet Member for Business, Enterprise and Skills in Westminster, explains how Business Improvement Districts can help bridge the gap between private sector interests and the communities in which they operate.

Westminster City Council, like many other local authorities has given a lot thought to how we promote the Big Society in our area. The role of local authorities in fostering a civic community is still yet to be fully articulated. In Westminster we see ourselves as ‘enablers’, identifying residents who want to do more and supporting them or getting out of their way to make their vision for the community a reality.

As the cabinet member responsible for business and enterprise in the city, I’ve been talking to local business leaders how and why they might like to make a bigger contribution to the community. One area of focus has been on companies doing more to maintain the streetscape by taking greater responsibility for their shopfronts and surrounds and another issue that comes up is volunteering. How do we ensure that we make the best possible use of employees’ skills when volunteering for local community groups and charities? This is something we will be working on into the New Year and I’m determined that the voluntary sector in Westminster should maximise the benefits of its proximity to more than 33,000 businesses and the headquarters of some national and international corporate leviathans.

But it is also important to recognise the wider role that businesses already play in our communities. In Westminster we have led the way in encouraging Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) so I have not had far to look for a blueprint on private enterprise doing its bit for the local area.

BIDs allow businesses on the same street or in the same area to band together, set local priorities and raise additional revenue to execute these priorities. In Westminster we’ve currently got five BIDs with progress being made on the exploring the potential for a further two, including the first ever ‘Property Owner BID’. The 2,000 businesses in Westminster’s BIDs contribute around £5.5 million per annum in additional investment in the area over and above the services provided by the City Council.

BIDs are established via a ballot of local businesses with membership based usually on a minimum rateable value threshold and decide on a levy which is usually around 1-2 per cent on top of business rates. A typical BID administrative team will usually consist of just a few people and be appointed to meet the objectives set out by the constituent companies.

It’s true that these companies are primarily motivated by profit when making such decisions but the process provides a clear example of corporate interests making a real contribution to the community whilst improving the business environment and improving the experience for customers and potential customers as well as making the areas better places to live and work in.

Westminster’s BIDs have provided match-funding for improvements to streetscapes, providing a unique insight and sounding board for designs. BIDs have funded street ambassadors who not only direct tourists but act as the eyes and ears of the business community, pointing out broken paving slabs, faulty streetlamps or incidences of anti-social behaviour. BIDs also fund business waste recycling schemes and street cleansing in addition to that which the council provides. It’s a surprise to me that BIDs are so poorly promoted when they’re such great examples of the Big Society action.

I know that many local companies will make real and substantial contributions to their communities outside of BIDs but others are put off because of the fear of freeloading by neighbours and competitors. That’s a fair concern but is remedied by BIDs and the principle of collective responsibility on which they’re based.

I hope that in time reform of the business rate regime will allow us as local authorities to do more for local businesses and offer them even better services but in the meantime BIDs can help connect councils and businesses and make us as councillors more attuned to the requirements of local employers and growth

The involvement of BIDs as employment brokers provides the ideal means by which to engage business leaders who have already shown a clear commitment to the local area and its community.

I know that for many councillors and business leaders, the current onerous regime for instituting BIDs can act as an impediment to their development. Many of these hurdles could be removed. This Government’s commitment to the private sector is very welcome, especially after a decade of bureaucratic creep into
all areas of our lives. A commitment to businesses, driven by profit, but aware of their wider responsibilities to the community and the environment, ticks all the right boxes.

If ministers need examples of the positive impact of the private sector on the Big Society, they need look no further than Westminster’s ‘BID Society’.