Aberdeen’s business improvement district has been renewed, with chief executive Adrian Watson promising to “take it to the next level” to help the city out of the pandemic.
After weeks of postal voting, the ballot result means a new five-year term for Aberdeen Inspired, the private firm set up to operate the trade zone (Bid).
A total of 267 votes were cast in favour of continuing with the Bid, with only 33 ballots against and 11 votes deemed invalid in the counting.
A huge 86% of city centre businesses backed the Bid, increasing the yes vote from the ballot five years ago from 63%.
Turnout among eligible voters was down on the 2016 ballot, at around 39% this year compared to 42% then.
A total of 609 people qualified to vote through the value of their premises – though there were 796 ballots issued due to a number of landlords – including the likes of Aberdeen City Council with its 18 properties – owning numerous buildings.
A total of 609 levy payers qualified to have a say for owning property within the district – along the length of Union Street, from John Street to Union Square.
But as many property owners own more than one building, they are given a vote for each premises that qualifies – meaning the likes of Aberdeen City Council have multiple ballots, 18 in the case of the local authority.
In total, 796 ballots were issued for the Covid-delayed poll, which is a legal requirement every five years due to the additional, mandatory, charge traders face as a result.
Those in premises with a rateable value of less than £27,500 were ineligible to vote as they are spared the charge – which has been halved to 0.5% this coming year in light of the fallout from the pandemic.
It will rise to the usual 1% between 2022 and 2026.
In recognition of the “very difficult times”, Mr Watson said there would be no big celebration among his nine staff, who he expected to get immediately “back to the day job”.
He told us: “Firstly, I am reassured for the team – we are grateful.
“But, more importantly, I am reassured for the businesses themselves who have seen fit to allow us to have another five years to support the city centre, as you know from our track record, we have done much to do that.
“And hopefully we can take that to the next stage in what we all understand will be a very challenging time.
“Certainly, the feedback through the ballot process has been that we need to see strategic change: delivering on the masterplan but also keep going with all the wonderful new events and festivals that Aberdeen Inspired has built up a reputation for.
“That will attract people in, safely at the moment as a primary concern, but moving forward bringing the footfall which is much needed to this regional capital city centre.”
Council leader Jenny Laing, said councillors were “absolutely delighted” with the “overwhelming” majority in favour of renewal, as businesses lined up to praise the organisation.
What does Aberdeen Inspired do?
In the last 10 years, Aberdeen Inspired has been responsible for bringing about the Christmas Village, the city’s jazz and comedy festivals, restaurant weeks and the renowned Nuart street art festival.
The Scandinavian import, adding murals from world-leading artists to walls around the district, is credited with attracting 30,000 visitors to the Granite City and is thought to be worth £10m in ‘marketing value’.
It also lobbies for funding for the city, leads efforts for accreditations like the Purple Flag night-time economy safety award to boost visitor numbers, and played a role in shaping how the council put the controversial Spaces For People physical distancing measures in place in the city centre.
The one-way systems, bike lanes, road closures and pedestrianisation have split Aberdeen traders but the Bid operator hailed the scheme for “allowing the city centre to open up safely during the pandemic”.
As Aberdeen emerges from the shadow of Covid, bosses have pledged to focus on deep cleaning buildings and improving waste collections, adding floral displays and ‘parklets’ in run-down areas, and lobby for the council to push on with a £150m refresh of the city centre and the beach which could lead to the permanent pedestrianisation of Union Street and the construction of a new market building on the former BHS site.
Approximately £40,000 – fronted by the partly taxpayer-funded Aberdeen Inspired – was budgeted for the cost of the ballot and the organisation’s campaign for renewal.
Watson: ‘Transparency and openness’ to win over Bid sceptics
Mr Watson and senior members of Aberdeen Inspired’s small staff have faced a year of innuendo and accusation through the pandemic.
While there have always been those who do not agree with the Bid – some arguing larger businesses benefit most – this year has seen fierce, sometimes personal, attacks launched on social media.
The chief executive, formerly Aberdeen’s police commander, said: “The result is there and that is a yardstick.
“We serve our 800-odd levy- paying businesses, you have to understand we are a private organisation, a subtle distinction people sometimes don’t make.
“Over the last five years, we have been here for the city – dare I say, for the region and the country – in trying to position it where it should be.
“It’s important to listen and get that feedback as a transparent and open organisation, if anyone wants to sit down with me, face-to-face and one-to-one, to discuss details, the offer is there.
“With regards to social media, I’ll leave that to the one or two on the side-lines, in the darkened rooms, to move forward with that and have their own opinions.
“You won’t win all the hearts and minds, but I think reflecting on the vote today, that most of the businesses are behind us.
“And we will continue to be open through our board of directors who all want the same thing: that’s for Aberdeen to be in a better position.”