By Linus Rees
In August 2012 the Fitzrovia Partnership Business Improvement District (BID) was formed after a ballot of large businesses on the Camden side of Fitzrovia voted for it. The BID will last for five years and raise through a levy on business rates around £1,000,000 every year to market Fitzrovia as a destination of choice and provide improvements to the trading environment. The BID was widely opposed by residents groups, and small businesses were left uninformed. With the BID now in its second year, what effect has it had on the neighbourhood so far?
Since its inception many local people have held a deep distrust for the Fitzrovia BID: a public-private partnership with Camden Council. There was no consultation with residents and small businesses, and Fitzrovia News had to make Freedom of Information Requests to Camden Council to extract information about the BID. Since then some concessions have been won: there are seats on the board of the BID for residents and small businesses, and Fitzrovia News has been invited to briefings.
Visibly, little has changed over the last year in Fitzrovia. There are no unsightly canvas banners hanging from lamposts or garish posters declaring “Enjoy Fitzrovia”. Little to suggest marketing Fitzrovia on a large scale and pushing the hours of commercial activity.
There has, however, been an increase in alcohol licence applications and change of use from retail to restaurant in the BID area, but this may not be directly linked to the Fitzrovia BID’s efforts to market the Charlotte Street area as an eating and drinking destination. Some of these changes are the result of the coalition government’s deregulation of town planning regulations. There is no longer a need to submit a planning application for change of use from retail to restaurant use and several premises in Fitzrovia have now taken the opportunity to make use of this. There is also a London-wide trend for new restaurant openings.
And there could be some positive outcomes to the wider community from the Fitzrovia BID. A new recycling and commercial waste scheme provided for BID members could not only create savings but cut down on the number of waste and recycling trucks from several different companies that drive through the neighbourhood to collect waste. The BID claims in their leaflets and August newsletter that the recycling service is free for members — “The Fitzrovia Partnership has launched the new FREE Recycling service for our Members” — but it appears that this is not the case.
One BID member told Fitzrovia News that glass is not included in the free recycling service. When we questioned the BID manager Lee Lyons about this he said: “Recycling is free up to a certain level for a number of different items, following which services become subsidised. Items like glass are included in the scheme at a reduced rate that we have procured for BID members to enable them to still save on their current charges.”
He stressed that by being a BID member businesses would reap savings. Their newsletter states:
Paper Round will deliver the BID’s commercial recycling and waste service with the aim to streamline existing services, achieve cost savings to Members and improve the area’s environmental impact.
The Fitzrovia Partnership has also declared it “aims to be sustainable with all of its projects, and is set to become the UK’s first Clean Air Exemplar BID, as well as becoming ISO14001 certified.” Quite how this squares with the amount of construction traffic that will be caused by its founding member Derwent London’s forthcoming total demolition and rebuilding of 73 Charlotte Street and part-demolition and redevelopment of 80 Charlotte Street right at the heart of the BID area remains to be seen. Presumably they’ll be seeking some sort of an exemption.
There is also the possibility that the Fitzrovia BID will lend support for community projects in the shape of funding and expertise. There are plans to restore the mural at Whitfield Gardens and make improvements to The Warren open space and the BID say they are interested in supporting this.
But if you think the Fitzrovia BID has made little visible or audible difference to the character of Fitzrovia so far, then you are likely to be in for a surprise this autumn. On the evening of Wednesday 13 November the Fitzrovia Christmas Lights will be switched on for Tottenham Court Road, Charlotte Street, and Goodge Street. There will also be “two Norwegian spruce Christmas trees decorated in bright and warm baubles and tinsel providing a focal point for community events, under the canvas of white chandelier style lighting that will maintain a strong presence across the area. Trees that align the streets will also be adorned with a white hue from our specially commissioned pea lights,” say the BID company.
Not surprisingly “the scheme met with widespread approval from Members who attended the recent Retail and Restaurant & Evening Economy sub-groups”, according to the Fitzrovia BID August newsletter.
Christmas lights might seem innocuous but they are there to attract increasing numbers of people into Fitzrovia’s streets in the evenings. This is a well-trodden BID formula where the daytime economy is extended into the evenings and beyond lengthening the daily cycle of commercial activity. In purely commercial areas and high streets away from homes this is not a problem. But Fitzrovia is different.
Wesley Skow of the Fitzroy Square Neighbourhood Association and Max Neufeld of the Charlotte Street Association, both of whom sit on the board of the BID to represent residents interests, have expressed concerns about the increase in commercial activity in the evenings and with the potential for this to creep into the weekends.
Wesley Skow described “Fitzrovia as a mixed-use area which contains thousands of residents many of whom have young families. Fitzrovia has a primary school and children’s nurseries as well as an ageing population. What makes Fitzrovia attractive is this mix and the neighbourhood is usually quiet on the weekends. But increasingly the area is becoming more commercially active during the evenings, with disturbance from large numbers of people congregating outside pubs and some cafes.”
Max Neufeld said Fitzrovia has “a special quality which stems from its residents and many families and a variety of businesses of different sizes and functions. It is a delicate balance which would be seriously undermined by relentless pressure for intensification added to the already known pressure created by Crossrail.
“Such intensification will significantly change the character of the area, be damaging to the residential amenity and, due to rising rents, drive out small and medium enterprises which help make the area interesting and attractive,” said Neufeld.
This autumn and winter we will get a taste for things to come in Fitzrovia as those 200-odd businesses contributing towards the cost of the BID will be expecting a return on their investment. What can’t be gained in savings on recycling and other services will likely come from the “intensification” that Neufeld fears, and that will certainly impact negatively on the neighbourhood.
You can keep a watchful eye on The Fitzrovia Partnership BID at fitzroviapartnership.com