Long Spoons, Gift Horses and BIDS

By A.J. McIntosh

Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Every cloud has a silver lining. Heaven helps those who help themselves.

There is a kind of buccaneering optimism around civic improvement these days. A form of magical thinking which assumes that, no matter how constrained our national or local-government budgets may be, there’s always some other source of money waiting to be winkled out of thin air.

We see it in the public-private partnerships that refurbished (not always well) and now manage Edinburgh’s state secondary schools. We find it in the soft refreshing rain of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and interventions by millionaire philanthropists.

And it is present every day in Edinburgh’s city centre in a form which is now becoming so familiar that we’re starting not to see it: Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

Legislation to bring BIDs about in Scotland was passed in 2006. Two years later, there appeared Essential Edinburgh (EE), whose remit stretches roughly from the old St James Centre to Charlotte Street, from George Street to the north side of Princes Street. It’s not the only BID in Edinburgh, but it has the longest track-record for discussion.

Property owners and businesses within that boundary were balloted on whether to join the scheme, the idea being that – if enough said yes – they would pay an extra levy to add to (rather than replace) Council services. This would ensure that, ‘Edinburgh city centre excels as a place to do business, a place to shop and a place to visit’ (EE website).

So far so inoffensive. Who wouldn’t want an excellent city centre? And if businesses choose to shell out more for it, why should we complain? We can have our cake and eat it.

Well, up to a point. Possibly with a long spoon. But to sceptical minds and sensitive stomachs, there’s plenty to feel queasy about with this cake.

For a start, the whole model has questionable democratic credentials. Put simply, why should those with deep pockets be privileged with an additional level of influence over a city centre all Edinburgh citizens regard as a collective inheritance?

And how democratic are Essential Edinburgh’s own internal politics? The organisation is now into its third five-year mandate, based on a majority of at least 25% of eligible parties voting in favour. Dissenters don’t get to opt out. Non-landowners and non-businesses don’t get to opt in.

Power within Essential Edinburgh is further concentrated within its Board. Certainly, it has a principled Governance Policy balancing members between a Council representative, different kinds of levy-payers, and other stakeholders. Nonetheless, it’s the big hitters like RBS, John Lewis, Boots, Standard Life, Marks & Spencers, and Harvey Nichols that predominate over smaller, more independent, perhaps Edinburgh-savvy voices.

Locally accountable voices are notably absent. Remember that Essential Edinburgh vision statement earlier: ‘a place to do business, a place to shop and a place to visit’? What about a place to live? Edinburgh residents don’t figure.

Essential Edinburgh is a commercially minded organisation. It unapologetically identifies and promotes opportunities to the benefit of member businesses. In this process, Edinburgh residents, in our own city, are like any other kind of passing footfall in the BID area. We’re here to be enticed, slowed, and charmingly parted from our money. Then enticed again.

We’re envisaged not as citizens who sunbathe, converse, argue, demonstrate, flirt, snog, congregate, work, worship, and wander about aimlessly with slack jaws looking at pigeons, but as consumers and spenders.

Activities or individuals obstructing such consumption and spending are not encouraged.

That’s why Essential Edinburgh would prefer to fill the capital’s built-heritage jewel with light shows and pop-up helter-skelter bars rather than have it speak for itself. That’s why it would like St Andrew Square full of money-spinning attractions rather than the green grass, healthy trees and tranquillity that the Council first promised.

Cynics argue that’s why Essential Edinburgh, in addition to any laudable humanitarian impulses its members may have, has paid for additional policing and case workers with a particular focus on helping homeless or begging individuals to find better alternatives elsewhere.

That’s why Essential Edinburgh is more about trivial enhancement – better bunting, parking, light-shows, and world-class litter picking – than it is about substantive changes to public-lavatory provision, waste management, traffic transformation, active travel, and air quality.

That’s why it pouts in a near-constant bubble of self-congratulation, inflated by marketing, afloat on a foam of PR.

Does any of this matter? I think it does, and I’ll give a particular example before arguing more generally.

One of Essential Edinburgh’s key objectives is to ‘Facilitate collaborative and productive relationships between city centre businesses and the public sector.’ We see this increasingly in the expansion of Fringe and other events northwards from an Old Town bursting at the seams into the comparatively peaceful First New Town, particularly George Street.

It’s a process that appears to be galloping ahead, despite widespread, explicit, and repeated opposition from Edinburgh residents who want at least a few portions of their beloved city to retain the original character which attracted visitors in the first place.

It’s a process over which local politicians seem largely to have surrendered responsibility to a combination of delegated officials and Essential Edinburgh staff the public never voted for. It’s a regrettable withdrawal from local governance by elected members – one driven, perhaps, by cowardice in the face of public reluctance to pay more tax.

James Craig’s First New Town is the supreme example of a self-confident city enacting coherent, civic planning with a long-term vision. Too much of what we see in this part of the city centre now is incoherent opportunism and pop-up triviality.

This is not some elitist whinge about the perils of commerce or having fun. It’s about citizens taking responsibility, taking difficult decisions seriously, about political accountability. Particularly when one considers the flexible way enabling legislation in Scotland was framed back in 2006 – private-sector BIDs will likely run us in even more supposedly innovative and exciting settings over the years to come if citizens don’t step up and engage.

Business Improvement Districts seem to offer something for nothing. Personally, I’m all for looking these gift horses in the mouth. And if I find a free lunch stuck in there somewhere, I’m not going to eat it.

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