A future GSD Government would consider alternative ways of ensuring the improvement of the city centre product while lessening the burden on business at this difficult economic time. We recognise that it makes sense to undertake an investment scheme into our city centre product. The issue is how and when.
The GSD has a track record of investment in the city centre product with the Main Street, Irish Town and Casemates beautification projects having been conducted by the GSD. Those projects vastly improved the city centre product. We recognise that 20 years on further enhancements are necessary to ensure we keep our general tourism product attractive. When the project for a Business Improvement District (“BID”) was devised it was originally conceived as a scheme by which the Government promised to match private funding on a pound for pound basis. Indeed that was the specific commitment in the GSLP/Liberals 2019 manifesto.
In fact, the Government subsequently watered down its commitment and in November 2020 confirmed it would provide a contribution of £250,000 rather than one that matched the annual private-sector generated £400,000 on a pound for pound basis. It is clear that traders seem divided on whether and how this project should happen. The complaints appear to be both procedural (in terms of the ballot process) and economic. Some traders also complain about their lack of awareness of the economic impact of the scheme on them.
This is a surprise because when the Bill was presented to Parliament the Government indicated that the BID Scheme had the support of traders and also the support of many traders in the side streets.
In fact, the Chief Minister said in so far as the traders in the side-streets that “the driver of the inclusion of them is the industry, and people who have businesses in those side-streets have approached those who are running this from Main Street to ask to be included.” This was a point reinforced by the Minister for Business Vijay Daryanani who said that “the side streets are even more interested because they have probably suffered even more.” The number of objections that have now surfaced points to the contrary. The turnout on the vote is also an issue.
It is clear under the BID Act that the Government retain power to supervise the ballot and if there were significant flaws they can step in and correct issues arising.
Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi said: “The reality also is that circumstances have changed since the BID idea was launched not least because of the effect on business of the various hikes in tax, social insurance, fees, levies and other charges that the Government imposed in their 2021 and 2022 budgets. This has layered much greater financial pressure on business. Some of these have been driven to the edge and because of these higher taxes, fees or charges which in part simply reflect the historic inability of this Government to maintain financial discipline. After all some of these tax and other fee hikes are going to plug the hole in the Government’s public finances due to financial indiscipline and an inability to properly tackle issues such as waste, efficiency and value for money.
As such and while a scheme to improve the business product is important it is understandable that businesses (and especially small businesses) and individual traders are concerned about the BID levy they are expected to discharge when they are already facing numerous new or massively increased charges and taxes. Some of those businesses have been surprised at the tone and content of demand letters being received. The demands on these businesses and their concerns have to be seen in the context of factors that have emerged since the Scheme was devised and in particular over the last 15 months.
If a way forward cannot be found before the next election the GSD would commit itself, in Government, to hold discussions with business representative organisations, the BID Project group and participating businesses to see how best the objective of the scheme can come to fruition (provided there is demonstrable appetite for the BID) without unduly burdening small business especially at such a difficult economic time.”