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Bidding for success

17 September 12

High street firms can take initiatives to improve their prospects even in the current climate, says Debra Clapham, who chairs the business improvement district for her community of Clarkston

by Peter Nicholson

Gloom on the high street. We hate to say it, but there is fairly consistent feedback that that remains the prevailing mood in traditional legal firms around Scotland. But need it be that way, even in this difficult economic climate?

Debra Clapham thinks not. While it is not unusual for solicitors to be involved in the community in one way or another, she now finds herself at the forefront of a scheme to revitalise her locality of Clarkston, East Renfrewshire.

Business improvement districts (BIDs) have been around since 2004, when the then Labour Government adopted an idea developed in North America. As explained in the panel, they require commercial interests within a defined area to vote in favour of a surcharge on the business rate in order to attract additional public funds, all to pursue a specific programme of improvements.

To date Scotland has relatively few schemes, only 14 or so having been approved (only one, in Glasgow, has been voted down). And Clarkston remains the only BID established in the west.

As retail guru Mary Portas reported in her review of the high street (see Journal, May 2012, 32), some BIDs have achieved more than others. Late last year, some 15 months after being voted in, it was beginning to look as if Clarkston might become one of the also-rans.

Conversion experience

Not that Clapham had envisaged becoming involved. “We voted no to the whole BID on the basis that we didn’t think it was something that was going to benefit us”, she explains. “Then I looked at Clarkston and thought, nothing’s really happening, what is this BID about? I went to a committee meeting, opened my mouth, and the next thing I knew I had been given the chair.”

They must have sensed that Clapham would not use the position to undermine a scheme she had not supported. Indeed not, as the Clarkston BID is beginning to attract interest from outwith its area.

One difficulty at the time Clapham joined was a lack of unity among member businesses, due in part to the shape of the BID area – long and narrow along a main street, with bigger clusters near the roundabouts at each end, which made it difficult for shopkeepers at one end to see things happening at the other as being to their advantage.

She comments: “Having a solicitor on it has given it a certain degree of cohesiveness, because people don’t perceive solicitors as retailers (which we’re not); they see us as independent, and that’s been quite useful because people have come on the BID who ordinarily wouldn’t have.”

With a BID levy of an extra 3.5p in the £ on the business rates, the Clarkston scheme imposes the highest charges in Scotland. What do the locals see in return for a £55,000 annual budget?

Bringing in business

Certainly much effort is going into improving the town’s self esteem. Bright red benches with the “I ♥ Clarkston” motif are dotted along the high street, as are “You are here” maps to show the visitor where they are within the BID area. Adverts on local buses also carry the motif. The gable of Clapham’s own office has a large banner promoting the BID.

But principally under Clapham’s chairmanship the BID, with a supportive local authority, is aiming to try and bring new business into the area, and more customers with it. An idea already planned, but launched during her time, is the loyalty card, which gives access to a range of special offers from local traders, including through an email database the committee are building up. As it’s place-based rather than people-based, anyone can apply for the card; and the greater the number of people signed up, the more businesses (including some national names) are starting to notice its potential and look at joining in on the supplier side.

“It can be seasonal promotions, or permanent promotions and discounts, and to date we’re nearing the 2,000 mark on the database with not that amount of work into it, which is quite impressive”, Clapham states. “I’m certain we can bring that up to between 5,000 and 10,000 with relatively little problem. I’ve been spending Saturdays down at the farmers’ market; I’ve been to fairs, churches, local communities, and people are really quite keen to take advantage of it. We’re building up a database that businesses can use, and by doing that we become extremely attractive to some of the bigger players.”

The committee is also identifying the types of new businesses it should be trying to attract to the area. “We’ve been doing it by surveys, via the loyalty card, the Facebook page, and now I know what people want I’ve been targeting businesses”, says Clapham. “For instance a fishmonger is one thing that has come up again and again. I’ve been in contact with the fishmongers’ retail association, and that’s quite unique for a BID to do that, so that’s why we’ve been attracting quite a lot of attention. And once people express an interest we can steer them to various resources in the council to see if we can give them a hand.”

Some are already arriving – an upmarket butcher and a bridal wear shop, for instance – and, Clapham notes, the occupancy rate is higher than it’s been in the past five to six years.

She hesitates to say that the scheme has yet improved footfall into the local shops, but adds: “If you ask me in a few years’ time I hope I’ll be able to say yes.”

Local ambitions

Community events also come within their remit. In the spring there was a walking treasure hunt, with clues related to local businesses, and voucher prizes. For September they have attracted £6,000 of funding for a “cycle Saturday”, round the idea that you walk or cycle to places rather than take the car. And they are responsible for the Christmas lights: come switch-on day they are organising a major event in the car park with stalls and choirs. “That fits in with Clarkston as a locality. So we’re quite active.”

Clapham expresses confidence for the remaining three years of the initial BID period. “My aim is threefold. First, to try to attract more businesses in, and I’m confident we can do that. The second thing is to get the businesses in this area working together. There are 132 businesses in the Clarkston BID and actually they feed off one another, so there’s enough work in the area without going outside it. That will expand the business life of the community itself, and people are beginning to see that. The third is for the community itself to feed off it: we’ve got these events coming on so there is a vibrant community.

“It’s not an easy process but it’s moving in the right direction. If you look at the Facebook page now, the feedback we’re getting is positive.”

Solicitors – facilitators

Clapham is keen to push the role solicitors can play in helping their business locality – and has little time for those who spend their time mourning the decline of the high street rather than doing something to counter it.

“Solicitors get a bad press, but we can use our contacts to help the local community, rather than sit there isolated and pretend that everything else that’s going on around has got nothing to do with us”, she asserts. Contacts with letting agents can be put to good use; and even investor landlords can be tackled. “I can have a look at their title; I can take the legal aspects and say, you’re not doing x, y and z, maybe you could rethink. And I have sat with some of the landlords and explained, if you don’t start doing this or that, you’re not going to get your properties let out at all. So there are things that solicitors can offer to the high street that they are slow to do because they see the high street declining.

“You have to make it relevant”, she adds. “We can dig, we know where to dig, and we’ve got skills that the high street can use. The whole thing about the BID is it’s based on an idea of community, and solicitors have lost that sense.”

When I suggest that is quite a sweeping statement, she responds: “They have lost it. When I was a trainee there was a sense of service, a sense that being a solicitor was being a part of a profession. The sense you now get is that it’s a business, that you have to specialise in a particular area, so the old fashioned solicitor who worked in the community, that’s fast disappearing and that’s a shame.”

Clapham rejects the prediction that through ABS, the small solicitor firm is going to disappear from the high street. “They won’t disappear – they may be in a different form, they may use different technology, but the reason why I’m confident about both the solicitors’ profession and the high street, is that you just have to find out what’s relevant, and adapt it. Because the high street’s not going to be the same as it was.

“I went to school literally two minutes from here, but the high street isn’t the same as I remember it, and if you’re trying to turn it back into that, it’s not going to happen. In the same way we’re not going to be back in the same solicitors’ profession as when I graduated. You have to make it relevant to today’s climate and that’s the challenge.”

Has her involvement in the BID had spinoffs for her firm? “Absolutely. I am much more visible here than before. People now know me as the BID chair, and obviously the firm. If you speak to some solicitors there is a kind of depression, and ‘If we could do anything other than law, we would.’ If you ask me whether I would do anything other than law, the answer is no. I love law and this is a way of combining law and community. They feed off one another – they’re not independent. If we have a healthy community, we’ve got a healthy business.”

Small things matter

Mary Portas came up with a lengthy list of proposals to revitalise the high street, but Clapham is none too impressed. “Her review was a review of previous literature. None of what she said was actually new; it’s all stuff that’s been out there already. And yes, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. You have to find out what works in your area.”

As for Portas’s idea of “super-BIDs”, with committees acquiring powers in relation to planning and compulsory acquisition, she comments: “That’s not going to happen, because the local authority will never relinquish control to that extent. I mean who’s going to run these super-BIDs? None of it’s really thought out.

“As we stand we’ve got enough scope, enough flexibility to make it happen. Even down to silly things like where part of the pavement’s really bad. The response from the council initially was sorry, no funding. So I got a local photographer to take shots of every section of the pavement through the BID area, and I’ve sent these to the council and said, right, I’m not only the BID chair, I’m the local solicitor. I’m documenting every area of the street, so if somebody falls, there we go. So I’m confident that the pavements will be sorted. These are things that you are able to do to make an impact; it doesn’t have to be a major impact. Just small steps are sufficient and add them up.”

Concluding, Clapham again challenges the pessimists. “With some colleagues, there’s a kind of apathy, a sad demeanour about being in the legal profession. I think what I’m trying to get over is it’s actually quite an exciting time to be in it. If you just address the challenges that are there, things are not going to be tremendously different. People think that the world as we know it will completely change, but that’s not the case.”


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