Plymouth: the consultation process
Like many other locations, Plymouth suffered from poor post-war planning in the town centre. While the retail centre was state of the art in the 50's, by the 90's it looked out-dated and suffered from a poor retail mix, in particular because of the lack of units of a size able to house today's retail needs.
There was also little leisure, evening economy or housing in the town centre. In 1991, for example, there were only 300 residents. This was compounded by poor linkages from the centre to Plymouth's main asset - the waterside.
Why a BID?: Three specific issues and opportunities provided the triggers towards developing a BID proposal in terms of need:
- For a retail strategy
- To improve the public realm
- To provide a competitive centre to 'bring back' the shoppers to Plymouth (which were being lost to Exeter)
The BID was seen as the mechanism or 'glue' to bring together these three needs. However, it was agreed that a BID would only succeed if the retailers were committed to it. The BID was not seen as an 'end in itself', and the primary focus was not on money (i.e. how much could it raise, and what can be achieved with it?). Rather it was seen strategically as a way of improving the retail environment and meeting the needs of retailers in a practical way.
Embarking on a 2 Year Business Engagement Programme: BIDs will only succeed if they are business-led. Therefore, Plymouth had to construct a well planned process to secure the commitment of the business community to develop a BID. This entailed:
- An initial lunchtime event resulted in 40 enthusiastic key people who agreed to act as ambassadors
- Approaching all retailers either individually or through events and focus groups
It was only following this early engagement that a decision was made to develop a BID.
The ambassadors undertook a number of roles including that of a 'sounding board' which helped in pitching to retailers at an appropriate level. For example most retailers are not e-mail users so other methods of communication are more appropriate. As busy people it was also essential to use the time that they gave to attend meetings to best effect. This meant having well organised meetings, with quality display material, and good presentations and that demonstrated the importance of their contribution to the process.
In order to make the process as democratic as possible (which also appealed to local political figures), a retailer survey and a public survey of 1,000 residents were undertaken in order to identify city centre improvement priorities. There was a high level of correlation between the views of the two groups.
Analysis of the survey results enabled issues to be classified into themes and this generated 50 project suggestions. This was followed by a major business planning event at which 60 Ambassadors and other key City Centre stakeholders voted individually to prioritise the top 50 costed projects. Further prioritisation of the projects was determined, based on the amount of income generated at various percentage levels of levy, and the final list of projects was incorporated into the draft business plan.
A major benefit of the process was its transparency and the degree of consensus achieved by both retailers and public. It enabled a realistic programme to be developed, based on costed projects that could be delivered within the budget generated by the BID funding, thus avoiding the raised expectations of 'wish lists' and unrealistic aspirations.
The City Centre Management initiative is independent and is funded from a variety of sources, including the Local Authority. However the BID was seen as a top political priority and was incorporated into the Council's Corporate Plan. High level contact and communication has been a feature in the process of developing the BID business plan. Further, the Council has pump primed the BID initiative in its development phase and as well as paying the levy on property within the BID boundary, will contribute as a property owner and continue to meet administrative and support costs including the salaries of the BID team.
- Consultation if done in a transparent and comprehensive manner takes time - do not underestimate how long is needed.
- High-level direction and drive is needed from the start to provide impetus.
- It is also useful to set up an internal officers group (with lawyers) in the early stages of the BID's development to ease communications between different departments and interests.
- The business community (and even the public), must play a large part in 'writing' the business plan.
- As well as providing direction and inspiration, a masterplan is important in terms of giving a place prestige and raising levels of self-esteem. It can provide a 'collective voice' of people working together.