Traders to ballot on future of Dublin Town business group
‘No to Bid’ campaign says traders already pay for services through commercial rates
Richard Guiney, chief executive of Dublin Town. Photograph: Eric Luke
Brendan Fagan’s Stock Design shop near Grafton Street in Dublin has proven an unshakable fixture in a city that has endured seismic shifts in the retail world.
A shrewd observer of the trading environment, Fagan has for the past decade voted in support of the Business Improvement District (Bid), an entity created to enhance the city but which has in recent years attracted its critics.
“I initially felt Dublin City Council needed somebody to monitor all the things that needed to be done to keep the city up to an acceptable standard in terms of housekeeping,” he said, referring to Dublin Town, as Bid was later rebranded.
Fagan was encouraged, he explains, by the organisation’s “green and clean” approach to the capital.
“Now they have become a marketing and events company,” he said. “They do a lot of good . . . but their emphasis has changed.”
Businesses will vote on the future of the 10-year-old Dublin Town next month in a legislatively provided plebiscite which occurs every five years.
Variously pitched as either a promotional powerhouse or a form of double taxation, ballots have been issued to its 2,500-plus “members” who must hand over the equivalent of 5 per cent of what they pay in annual commercial rates. The payment is in addition to rates.
The Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) and the Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) have come out against its renewal and a “No to Bid” campaign is holding a press conference setting out its opposition on Tuesday.
Supporters say the organisation led by chief executive Richard Guiney has done much to improve the city and, in a statement, Dublin Town played down the level of opposition, saying it enjoys “overwhelming support” from the business community.
Dublin City Council pointed to the 2006 legislation underpinning Bid’s work as being “in addition to and not instead of any project, service or work carried out or provided by the rating authority”.
The often controversial model is relatively rare in Ireland. Where it does exist, critics dismiss it as a superfluous entity whose function should be fulfilled by the local authority. It was introduced in Dublin in 2007 under legislation following lobbying from the business community. The concept originated in Canada in the 1970s and spread elsewhere on the premise that businesses would pay more for enhanced services complementing those of a local authority.
Its remit includes improving or “beautifying” public streets and buildings, the removal of graffiti, conducting research and promoting tourism. Between 2015 and 2016, the council said it has contributed €113,289 to the Dublin city organisation.
At its last plebiscite in 2012, 1,063 businesses voted for its continuation against 511 opposed but in recent years, a number of them have set about consolidating a mood of discontent.
“To me they are an extra division of Dublin City Council,” said Adrian Cummins, a leading opponent and chief executive of the RAI.
“The issue [those intending to vote no] have is that this should be covered in your commercial rates.”
Mr Cummins, like others, believes the Bid lacks sufficient transparency regarding its finances, particularly around the accumulation of €1.9 million in unspecified or “other” funding sources over the past 10 years.
In a statement, Dublin Town said it operates to the “highest standards of governance and transparency”, adding that “all sources of sponsorship are publicly acknowledged”.
Most recent accounts, for 2015, show income of €2.7 million from the levy and €408,000 from “other” sources. The majority of its expenditure (€1 million) was for marketing and promotion, against €408,000 on cleaning and maintenance.
“It was set up to clean and green and make it [Dublin] more aesthetically friendly for people in the centre and they have failed,” said Mr Cummins.
Dublin Town says that in the past two years, it has removed 38,000sq m of graffiti, 34,420 “sharp and potentially infected items”, 1,370kg of glass and 531 metric tonnes of waste.
“Dublin Town has secured Purple Flags for both the northside and southside Bid districts. This imposes additional cleaning obligations on Dublin City Council in addition to the baseline cleaning agreement that Dublin Town enforces,” it said.
Still, there are dissenting voices. A statement from the IHF said it would oppose its renewal on the basis that “all services currently provided by Dublin Town should fall under the remit of Dublin City Council so as to avoid inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication of services”.
In response, Dublin Town said: “To our knowledge, neither organisation [the IHF or RAI] has decided to oppose the renewal of Dublin Town. We have the support of the majority of leading hotels and restaurants in the Bid area.”
Dublin Town’s primary objective is to increase the number of customers coming into the city through a combination of creating a welcoming environment with a sense of security and marketing.
While some businesses are critical, others are supportive. Hugh Hourican, who runs the Boar’s Head pub on Capel Street, is quoted in the Bid strategy document: “I can get on with running my business and get [Dublin Town] to resolve issues happening outside my door. Nobody else is going to do what they do, so I have been persuaded to vote yes.”
Among its future strategic priories are investment in public transport, working through infrastructure construction like Luas Cross City, city wifi and encouraging local investment. The closing date for ballots is July 17th.