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Ballymena's innovative business improvement district could act as blueprint for ambitious towns

By John Simpson

Published 12/05/2015

There’ll be plenty of change in Ballymena
There’ll be plenty of change in Ballymena

Ballymena town centre is the first part of Northern Ireland to introduce a Business Improvement District (BID). The legislation to allow for the creation of BIDs was approved by Stormont in mid-2014 and several other areas are also preparing to seek approval from the business ratepayers within their defined area.

In Ballymena the area, within which all trading businesses have been asked to agree to the new arrangements, has been rigorously defined on a map of the town centre. Defining the area is a critical starting point. All businesses (after specific exemptions and exclusions) within the defined area, now that the scheme has been formally approved, will contribute to a compulsory levy of 1.5% of their rate bill which will be passed to the local business group charged with implementing the BID proposals.

For Ballymena, the scheme has formal approval and over the next five years it will administer a budget of £1.5m spread evenly year by year. An important creative tension in the setting up of a BID is, first, to ensure that the plans are adding features or activities to benefit the business environment in ways that are outside the remit of other agencies, whether related to the local authority or central Government. Second, the BID team must apply local initiatives that add to local business development.

The Ballymena BID has been initiated with six thematic priorities.

The largest projects will fall within a co-ordinated programme of marketing, promotions and events. One third of the total budget is earmarked for these events which, inter alia, should increase the local footfall through a managed marketing campaign and an improved online presence and quality events and entertainment.

Supporting the marketing theme, there will be a critical focus on improving accessibility of the BID area, drawing on one sixth of the budget. To no surprise, this includes an emphasis on the town centre environment, backed by efforts to tackle concerns about facilitating car parking, linked to tailored incentives to help car users.

The other thematic ideas include:

  • Supporting town businesses, using £162,500
  •  Improving safety and security, using £150,000
  •  Improving the physical environment, using £112,500, and
  •  An Innovation Fund of £50,000.

Creating a successful BID will not be an easy 'win'.

Ideally a successful BID would have broadly based support. Since it combines an element of compulsory participation along with a compulsory levy from business ratepayers, a fractious disagreement could be damaging. Ballymena starts with the advantage that the referendum of business ratepayers offered undoubted support.

In some places there could be difficult questions in defining the precise BID area. To be included leads to a compulsory levy. The line on the map will inevitably create 'ins' and 'outs'. That then leads into a need to ensure that those who benefit also contribute and, vice versa, those who do not contribute should, if possible, not fully benefit. Those distinctions will almost certainly sometimes be imprecise.

Ballymena town centre does have the advantage that the town has a social and environmental coherence that would not be so evident where there were community tensions.

Some of the possible actions within a BID will test the relationships with the local government institutions. A progressive council might try to develop community ideas that would make a BID unnecessary. Alternatively, the council might skilfully tailor its council activities to supplement a BID programme.

The relationship of the council to a BID management group is likely to emerge as critical to the success of both groups. The most unhelpful combination would emerge where the council or the BID managers tried to stand back and pass responsibility to the other. A shared understanding and implementation programme will increase the prospects of significant additional benefits.

The introduction of the additional arrangements for Business Improvement Districts in different urban areas is a potentially useful supplement to other community planning responsibilities in the new council areas.

Company report: BHH Ltd

BHH was formerly known as Barnett Hall Holdings and is a large business engaged in the manufacture and sale of animal feedstuffs and fertilisers. The accounts consolidate information about its subsidiary companies including John Thompson and Sons, Independent Fertilisers and Precision Analysis.  

Turnover in BHH increased rapidly in the last decade and further after 2010 to peak at £286m in 2013. More recently, turnover fell by 10% in the year to July 2014.

The reduced turnover is attributed to falling commodity prices and lower sales volumes during the year.

Although turnover was lower, in the last year, operating profits increased by 7%. 

A small reduction in net interest costs on borrowed funds resulted in pre-tax profits increasing by 9% in 2014.  The ratio of pre-tax profits to turnover improved over the previous year.

Average employment in the group, at 182 people, was only fractionally lower than a year earlier.

For some employees, the company operates a defined benefit pension scheme. In contrast to a number of other local defined benefit schemes, the actuarial assessment of this scheme has identified a surplus in the accounts in the last two years. 

BHH trades extensively with other ‘related’ companies in the Barnett group including W&R Barnett and R&H Hall.  Purchases from these related companies in 2014 were valued at £154m, which is the equivalent of nearly 60% of the turnover of BHH.

The balance sheet value of shareholders’ funds has been recovering in the last two trading years. Although post-tax profits were significant, retained post-tax profits were more than offset by the dividend payments of £4.15m in each of the last two years on preference shares and normal equity.

Belfast Telegraph

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