Empty shops in Birmingham could be turned over to colleges and community groups to try and breathe life into dying high streets.
As part of a council scheme, city centre businesses are also set to be asked to pay more to fund collapsing local shopping centres.
The council is set to ask firms to pay increased Business Improvement District (BID) levies to help areas where dying high streets are packed with empty shops.
The increase of an extra £35 a year on their BID levies is the amount Service Birmingham charges for collecting the annual levy which is added to business rates and the cost is currently covered by the city council.
Now the city’s Labour leadership has agreed to ‘explore’ ways of passing the charge on to members of the city centre BIDS – the Colmore Business District, Birmingham Retail, Broad Street and Southside following a scrutiny committee inquiry into local centres.
During evidence sessions last year the inquiry found that Service Birmingham, which has the contract to collect business rates for the council, applied the extra charge per property when BIDs were set up.
The inquiry also highlighted initiatives such as pop-up shops, turning empty shop units over to colleges and community groups for use and ensuring that local centres get a cut of community infrastructure tariffs, the spin-off cash from development, to keep them viable.
Committee chairman Coun Ian Cruise (Lab, Longbridge) said: “The subject of local centres is often bypassed in favour of big infrastructure developments in the city centre. Brand Birmingham is important, but then so is brand locality.”
He said that one proposal, reluctantly accepted by the council leadership, would allow council districts to hold funds for investment in shopping parades and town centres, rather than lose unspent money to the central council pot at the end of every financial year.
“This would allow for long term investment and planning for our centres,” he argued.
But it is the removal of the £35 invoice cost for city centre BIDs which could provide extra funding for ailing centres at a time of budget cuts and economic strife.
Coun Cruise added: “I don’t see why we should subsidise an invoice on behalf of multinational corporations and large companies.”
He said that the money saved could then be used to either develop more suburban BIDS, along the lines of those in Erdington, Sutton Coldfield, Northfield and Acocks Green, or invest in local centres.
Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore promised to ‘explore’ the possibility.
Committee member Jerry Evans (Lib Dem Springfield) said that previous local centre policy was developed a few years ago. “Economic conditions are now different in both the make up of local centres and the amount of council funding available to them.”
He said the council needs to act to generate growth in local centres and halt the trend of decline or stagnation.
“Empty units should be used in the short term by colleges and community groups. Pop up shops could be used to incubate new business.”
While Conservative economic development spokesman Coun Timothy Huxtable (Bournville) welcomed recommendations that local centres are considered when development spin off cash is available.
“Some of the community infrastructure levy must be directed towards the health and vitality of local centres. Our local centres are the heart of Birmingham’s urban villages.”
Birmingham, as Britain’s largest local authority, contains a network of 70 local centres. The inquiry found that existing planning and local centre policies were outdated, but found that over-arching strategies and local plans are needed to guide their recovery.
“We need to recognise that many of the previous assumptions no longer apply. We therefore suggest a shift in focus, recognising the changing nature of local centres and the need for some to attract more specialist shops and provide more of a draw for those outside the area. The new strategy should also heed the calls for greater business and resident involvement in designing and managing local centres,” the report concluded.
It also warned that centres should be well placed to capitalise on any infrastructure funding as and when it becomes available.