�1m improvement levy urged on Hunts town centre firms

BUSINESSES in the centre of Huntingdon are being urged to commit to spending an extra �1million over the coming five years to attract more people into the town.

Ballot papers are set to be sent out to businesses and owners of empty premises with a rateable value of more than �5,000 who will be asked to make the town centre a ‘Business Improvement District’ (BID), joining the 144 other established districts that have committed to invest a total of more than �300m in improving their trading environments.

If, when the votes are counted on July 20 after polling closes on July 19, more than 50 per cent of businesses are in favour, representing at least half the total rateable value of votes cast, the levy will apply to all business premises of significant size in the town centre, other than charities and not-for-profit clubs and societies. It will be in addition to the non-domestic (business) rates collected by HDC on behalf of HM Treasury, levied at 1.5 per cent of rateable value each year for five years.

It will be the first Business Improvement District in Cambridgeshire, although Cambridge city is not far behind Huntingdon in the BID process.

Starting this autumn, the money raised will be used to fund �325,000 of investment over the five-year period to make the centre of Huntingdon clean safe and welcoming, with ‘Huntingdon Rangers’ patrolling the town centre and working with the police. The ‘yes’ camp says rangers in other towns have cut shoplifting by half.

“As the only dedicated ranger team in our region, it will make Huntingdon stand out as being somewhere special and valued,” supporters say.

More than �300,000 would be spent on marketing, promotions and events, with a new town centre website and a dedicated gift voucher scheme for the town centre retailers, and �100,000 on business support, including centralised procurement, business networking, advice and training.

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Finally, the promoters plan to spend �100,000 on parking promotions, signage, maps and access for disabled customers, building on the district’s only Shopmobility service based in the Malthouse Close car park, near the Commemoration Hall.

It would be delivered by BID Huntingdon, a not-for-profit company led by local business people, with a board elected from levy-payers.

Some businesses could save as much as they contribute, according to one enthusiastic backer of the levy.

“I particularly like the money-saving things, such as joint procurement,” Jon Kerby, who owns Cambridge Interiors in Trinity Place and is a director of the town partnership, told The Hunts Post. “Potentially [the BID] could cost me nothing. Some businesses could actually save more than they pay in the levy.

“But the main thing for me is to make Huntingdon a more attractive place. To me it’s the daytime economy that matters: to others it’s the night-time economy.”

Mr Kerby said Huntingdon’s retail survival during the economic downturn had bucked the national trend - which was the reason the town’s branches of Peacocks, Game, Bonmarch� and Clintons had survived their owners’ national culls.

Town centre manager Katy Sismore said she had invested the past 18 months in preparing for the BID vote. “We have tried to interact with everyone, so it should not come as a surprise unless there has been a change of manager and the message has not been passed on.

“A lot of people come to Huntingdon and say what a tidy town it is - but this is to take it to another level. It will look significantly better for a ‘yes’ vote.”

The BID Huntingdon task force that prepared the scheme is chaired by architect Graham Campbell, who is also chairman of Huntingdon Town Partnership.