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The CEO of Bury St Edmunds business improvement district is hoping the outcome of a vote on its future will be a resounding ‘yes’

This month, ballot papers were sent out to just over 400 businesses in Bury St Edmunds town centre, requiring a simple ‘yes or no’ answer.

The question being asked: Should the town’s business improvement district (BID), for which they pay, continue for the next five years?

Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District (Our Bury St Edmunds) has been supporting town centre businesses since 2010.

Sue Warren, marketing manager, Mark Cordell, CEO, Mike Kirkham, business support manager, in Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Sue Warren, marketing manager, Mark Cordell, CEO, Mike Kirkham, business support manager, in Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds

Mark Cordell, its CEO since 2011, is hoping the answer will a resounding ‘yes’.

“More than anything, I would like to see the result as a real vindication and support for what we do,” he said.

“We are a small team but we are all immensely committed and dedicated to this town.

“We are all proud of Bury and would like to see the result as an endorsement of our work.”

BID has now released its business proposals for the next five years, covering the period April 2025, when its fourth term would begin, to March 2030.

Mr Cordell said: “We do a lot of marketing and promoting; when you see Bury St Edmunds listed in national newspapers, that doesn’t happen by accident. We are very proactive around this.

“We are now also the organisation that puts on all of the major events in the town, such as the Spring Fayre, the Food and Drink Festival, Christmas lights event, Motorsports East and the skating rink in the arc.

“What is particularly popular with our members is free training in areas from first aid to food safety, alcohol licensing, social media marketing and neurodiversity.

“Over 1,000 people have attended these and over 85 per cent of these from independent businesses.”

The BID raises around £400,000 a year from town centre businesses, which pay a levy based on a percentage of the rateable value of their trading unit: currently two per cent.

The rateable value threshold has remained at £10,000 a year throughout BID’s tenure.

During the latest term, BID also accessed a further £400,000 in external funding.

A not-for-profit company, it then reinvests the money in activities that support members in addition to those already provided by statutory authorities to improve the town trading environment.

Mr Cordell said: “Since our last ballot in 2019, we’ve all experienced so much change including the pandemic, lockdowns, workers being furloughed, council budget cuts, increased utility costs plus a general cost of living crisis.

“During this time the BID has consistently supported its members.

“However, we’re mindful of the costs members face which is why the next term’s BID levy will see the smallest increase ever of 0.15 per cent.

“For many businesses their rateable value has reduced since the 2017 evaluation, which will mean they will pay less than they currently do.

The Spring Fayre beach is one of the attractions arranged by the BID (Our Bury St Edmunds). Picture: Mark Westley
The Spring Fayre beach is one of the attractions arranged by the BID (Our Bury St Edmunds). Picture: Mark Westley

“The overall impact of the new charges though is that the total annual levy income will be less than it was in 2020, around £25,000 a year. But we can meet this over the next
term from reserves and also efficiency savings.

“We are confident the quality of the service and activities the BID provides continues to represent good value for money.

“We also work with outside partners to access extra funding and anticipate we can continue to do this, all being well.

“We liaise with three councils, the police, other town organisations including Bury in Bloom, the Tour Guides and Eco Carriers. And we have demonstrated how much more can be achieved this way – long may this be the case.”

Membership of the BID consists of 436 businesses, with a further 25 voluntary members, which don’t meet the rateable value threshold.

The breakdown of sectors represented is around 45 per cent retail, 25 per cent hospitality, 25 per cent professional services and five per cent wellbeing and entertainment

West Suffolk Council runs the BID election ballot under national regulations.

In 2019, 147 businesses voted in the ballot, 123 (84 per cent) voted yes. It represented a 35 per cent turnout against a national average of 41 per cent. The majority of those voted were independents, said Mr Cordell.

“One claim that we face is that it is the big businesses who benefit from the BID,” he said.

“But in fact the big businesses pay 72 per cent of our income, small business pay 28 per cent and we spend nearly all the money on things which benefit them.

“In that way, it represents great value for money. Just under 50 per cent of all independent businesses will be charged less than £1 a day for the next five years.”

The team of five, based in Woolhall Street, consists of a CEO, a marketing manager, marketing assistant, business support manager and events manager. The board currently has 10 volunteer directors.

The 2025 - 2030 business plan consists of four areas: Making Our Town Centre Even Better, Marketing Our Town, Providing Support for Members and Making Our Town Centre More Environmentally Friendly.

There’s also room for flexibility, added Mr Cordell.

He said: “Understandably, the main focus for businesses is going to be economic. There is lots we would all like to do to make the town a bit greener but at the moment the top priority is survival.

“Members have indicated they would like us to continue what we are already doing. But if, for instance, next year there is an AI revolution, we would jump on it. A five year plan is not going to stop us doing what needs to be done for members.

“Take the Covid period for example, when the money was diverted to helping the business survive.”

BID lists its achievements over the last term as: Covid support, free training, free annual events, promotion and marketing, environmental, saving businesses money, TV and news coverage.

It lists successes including more than 250,000 visitors to free admissions events, a 14 per cent increase in footfall on 2019 (pre Covid) levels, 1,250 free training places for members, 3,500 users of the town’s LoyalFree app, 11 years of ‘free from 3pm’ parking around town, on Tuesdays.

Other figures include £140,000 local spending generated through the Bury St Edmunds Gift Card, 150,000 town centre maps distributed, 600,000 plus users to its website, 60,000 social media followers, one million views of promotional videos, nationwide.

In 2023, the BID fully incorporated Bury St Edmunds & Beyond into its fold. It has worked with the organisation since 2017 to directly market the town locally and nationally, specifically targeting London, the South East and the Midlands.

As well as seasonal tourism campaigns, it says 50 plus press trips have been arranged for journalists, and extensive national press coverage.

The BID says in the last five years trips to Bury increased by 22.84 per cent, with visitor spend up 9.21 per cent, with a total value of tourism to the local economy of £4 million.

“The last four years has been a huge success when you consider what we have gone through; a pandemic, lockdowns, cost of living crisis, utility bills rises, cost rises in all products, and inflation,” said Mr Cordell.

“To think where we are now, not just us as an organisation, but the town centre where vacancy rates are still half the national average, footfall is still going up, the town is buzzing, businesses like Primark and Deichmann coming here, Phase Eight relocating in the arc because they don’t want to leave the town.

“I think any objective assessment would be the town is doing very well.

“We want to know that we have the backing of our membership; we want to continue to keep the town as vibrant as ever and to do that we need our businesses to vote yes.

“Most of our business need tourists, new customers, and without us here, undoubtedly for a little period, those people would still keep coming.

“But then Cambridge, for example, would be promoting itself, and we wouldn’t. That way you soon get forgotten.”