Rising from the ashes

Rising from the ashes

by aurora planning

This week, we can once again enjoy a coffee, a drink or a bite to eat in our city centre cafes, bars and restaurants (outdoors of course), and many city centre shops have now re-opened as well. However, not all have done so, and these leisure experiences will be very different than we have been used to in those that have. Couple this with the well-documented challenges that were already facing city centres before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and it is clear that changes will need to be made to attract people back into these centres again. The question is, what shape might those changes take, and how might they be delivered?

This question is particularly pertinent to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), of which there are over 300 across the UK. These are business led partnerships with the remit of improving the trading environment within their defined boundaries, adding value to the areas they represent. Whilst every BID is of course different, with its own challenges and solutions geared specifically to address those, they all aim to increase footfall and spend in city centres. They are also all reliant on a combination of a levy paid by businesses within their district and funding from Councils and the Scottish Government. 
Just before shops were due to reopen, we got some insight into the issues facing BIDs and how these might be addressed when we caught up with Adrian Watson, the Chief Executive of the Aberdeen city centre BID, Aberdeen Inspired, which was the European BID of the year in 2017/18. And the good news is that Adrian is confident that, with a combination of partnership working, innovative thinking, and culture change, there is still a positive future for BIDs and our city centres. 
But what form will that take?  Here are some of our thoughts, triggered by our discussion with Adrian.
Over the last few years, Aberdeen Inspired’s focus has been on events which bring a large number of people into the city centre, and they’ve had significant success with initiatives such as the award winning NUART festival, Aberdeen Restaurant Week, Aberdeen International Comedy Festival, and Inspired Nights on the Green. Clearly though, continuing these isn’t going to be possible for some time yet. A new approach is therefore required for Aberdeen, but the thinking is likely to be equally applicable to other cities.
In terms of that approach, it was heartening for us as planners to hear Adrian emphasise the role of the Aberdeen city centre masterplan and the importance of the BID getting behind that, and similar plans and strategies will exist in cities elsewhere. Working towards a shared vision, with clearly defined aims and objectives gives us the best chance to revitalise our city centres, even if we need to rethink how we might achieve those. 
And one of the key mechanisms to do that will be encouraging more city centre living and the return of offices to the city centre, with Adrian reminding us that, while we may all be embracing working from home just now, most of us still have a desire to feel part of a wider community. That then draws us to live and work in places such as our city centres, where we can socially engage and interact with others. And many of  those interactions have an economic side to them, whether that’s buying a coffee on the way to the office in the morning, meeting up with friends after work, or picking up shopping on the way home. These are all things that we took for granted before, and perhaps appreciate more now that we can’t do them so readily, and this will hopefully get many of us into the city centre again as lockdown restrictions gradually ease.
Another important aspect will be making city centres more pedestrian and cycling friendly, and looking at how to get people into the city centre other than by private car. It does though also need to be recognised that, for many places and many people, there is still going to be a dependency on the car, and so getting that balance right will be important.  Coronavirus may though have presented a significant opportunity in this regard, as measures to increase the amount of space available to pedestrians and cyclists are being implemented in city centres across the country to allow people to maintain social distancing. Over the coming months, it will be important to monitor how people are using these spaces, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in order to make the case for making city centres more pedestrian friendly in the longer term.  In doing that, communication will be key to ensure that all stakeholders, including those who are currently sceptical, reap the potential benefits arising from this.
Returning to subject of going for a coffee, a drink or a bite to eat, we discussed the increased use of outdoor areas for cafes, bars and restaurants, and the hope that planning authorities will be permissive in allowing these, provided of course that those making outdoor seating available are sensible in doing so. Agility here is important, with there being calls for the planning system to be quicker and more flexible.  At the same time though, there is the need for continued governance to protect our most important urban assets and, importantly, for planning authorities to implement the town centre first policy enshrined in Scottish Planning Policy. On this, we know from our own experience of working with the City of Edinburgh Council on the Festival Village in the city centre there that Councils very much recognise the importance of such venues in supporting economic recovery, and are looking at how best to facilitate these uses without undermining the quality of the urban environment. This is obviously an important balance to get right and, in doing that, there needs to be a joined-up approach within Councils between planning, roads occupation and licencing officers.
While many businesses can and will adapt to the current circumstances (and indeed, space for some new local or more niche businesses to open up may be created), many will not reopen, including major national chains such as John Lewis. That will then have a significant impact on BID funding; if there is no business, then there is no levy payment. And, for those businesses that do survive, we wonder whether the BID levy could be perceived as yet another tax burden that they could do without in a difficult trading environment. At the same time, both local government and the Scottish Government have had to divert resources to addressing the pandemic and the issues arising from that, with little perhaps left for BID activities. Add in the fact that many other funding streams require match funding, and it would seem to be a challenging time for BIDs. On the other hand, it is in these circumstances that BIDs are most valuable, with these able to support businesses in the city centre and be integral to their recovery in ways that the local authority can’t.  
The take-away message from Adrian was that Aberdeen city centre is very much open for business, and the same will go for other city centres across the country. Of course, these may look different, with moves towards encouraging more city centre living and more niche retail alongside an increased focus on the food, drink, and office sectors, and initiatives to make our city centres streets more pedestrian friendly. However, with change clearly needed even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, this is perhaps something to be embraced. So, it is less of a question of whether or not the city centre phoenix will rise from the ashes of the coronavirus pandemic, and more a question of what the phoenix will look like when it does so.   

Thanks for reading!

Pippa and Maggie

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