TWELVE months ago, there would have been few people in Bradford who had heard the phrase “Business Improvement District” let alone could explain what it was all about.

In that short time, more than 65 ballots have successfully taken place to establish or renew Business Improvement Districts (or BIDs) in towns and cities across the country.

And it would be a fair bet to say that, in Bradford city centre at least, most people have now heard of the BID, even if they can’t all articulate exactly what it stands for.

By the time the Bradford project goes to ballot – with papers issued on September 13 and votes closing on October 11 – some people may even be a little tired of hearing about it.

If they are, that means the BID development team’s efforts to get the message across have been successful and Bradford can look forward to more than £2.5 million being spent on improvements in the city centre over the next five years.

According to the latest annual survey by British BIDs, which works to support those striving to launch or run BIDs around the UK, there are currently 305 active BIDs in operation and another 47 are being developed.

So what is it about BIDs that has led to their extraordinary growth since the first formal ballot to create one took place just 14 years ago?

BIDs originated in Canada in the 1970s and spread across North America before crossing the oceans to start up in countries as far apart as South Africa, Germany and New Zealand.

The idea was first picked up here in 1977 when the then Conservative Government commissioned research into how to establish them, with Tony Blair taking up the cause in 2001 by introducing legislation to facilitate their creation.

They were piloted in 22 areas between 2002 and 2005, with the first formal ballot taking place in December 2004.

According to an impartial Briefing Paper produced for MPs by the House of Commons Library in May this year, the benefits of BIDs, cited by businesses as wide-ranging, include:

• Businesses decide and direct what they want for the area;

• Business are represented and have a voice in issues affecting the area;

• BID levy money is ring fenced for use only in the BID area – unlike business rates which are paid in to and redistributed by government;

• Increased footfall;

• Increased staff retention;

• Business cost reduction (shrinkage, crime, joint procurement);

• Area promotion;

• Facilitated networking opportunities with neighbouring businesses;

• Assistance in dealings with the council, police and other public bodies.

Interestingly, that list describes most of the issues raised by businesses and other city centre organisations in the extensive survey carried out by the Bradford BID development team last year. Their survey of about 600 businesses attracted more than 200 responses – at 33 per cent, a fantastic research sample by any standards – and found that more than 70 per cent believed a BID was exactly what Bradford needed.

“The issues they identified were just the sorts of things BIDs across the country have been working on since they first started,” said Ian Ward, chairman of the Bradford BID development board, who also ran a BID in Liverpool before moving across the Pennines to take on the role of general manager at The Broadway shopping centre.

“For businesses to thrive in city centres these days they need footfall and you can only bring in visitors, shoppers and workers – let alone attract new business and investment – if the city centre feels safe, if it looks clean and tidy, if it is vibrant and buzzing with leisure opportunities and you are marketing all of that to the outside world as well as to your local customer and employment base.”

He said Bradford was no different to any other town or city in that respect but it had arrived at a point where it was poised to take the next step.

“We are completely realistic about the challenges facing the high street; we know cities have to reinvent themselves and aim to become much more rounded as leisure destinations and meeting places,” said Mr Ward.

“And Bradford has taken huge steps in the right direction: City Park is a resounding success, the National Science and Media Museum has been revamped and is a fantastic asset with growing visitor numbers.

“The Alhambra continues to be one of the best – and best-attended – theatres in the North; St George’s Hall is a fabulous and highly-regarded concert hall that will soon be back in action and we have Bradford Live to look forward to as well as vastly-improved rail facilities a little way further off.

“The city centre is perfectly primed for the sorts of benefits a BID can bring.”

The BID could draw people together with a common goal of capitalising on Bradford’s assets and helping businesses work as a team to secure their futures, he said.

“All we need now is for those involved in the ballot to make sure they vote and vote to make it happen,” said Mr Ward. “There’s a lot to lose if they don’t – but a huge amount to gain if they decide to Vote Yes!”