Focusing on the now widespread use of Business Improvement Districts, Dr. Ian Cook (Northumbria University) argues here that recent plans to privatise aspects of policing in England are not without precedent.
On 2nd March 2012, The Guardian revealed that two police forces in the UK were planning to put a significant number of their services out to tender. A number of people including former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott have subsequently lamented these plans. I also worry about the proposals. Nevertheless, as I will suggest here, it is important to recognise that these proposals are part of a longer but somewhat uneven process of pluralising and, indeed, privatising policing in the UK.
Three days later after The Guardian‘s report, and to considerably less media attention, a consortium of businesses and public officials in Plymouth pledged to improve the safety, cleanliness, marketing and public events of its waterfront. They had just been given the ‘green light’ from local businesses to establish a Business Improvement District (BID) in the area. Opening on 1st April 2012, it will be the second BID in the city and one of over 120 BIDs to be established in the UK.
What are BIDs then? In short, they are partnership bodies whose existence is subject to a yes/no vote by businesses within a defined geographical area. Their unique feature is their funding; they are primarily funded through a mandatory taxation on businesses in their area (Cook, 2009). The mantra of BIDs is that businesses decide what (a small part of) their business taxes are spent on.
Importantly, as well as providing services such as destination marketing and cleaning of public spaces, BIDs also frequently engage in security operations (Cook, 2010). They want to create the ‘right’ ambiance for consumers to spend and this often means making consumers feel safe. Their security schemes frequently take the form of CCTV surveillance, inter-business radio networks, and mobile patrols (whether wardens, or the funding of dedicated PCSOs or Police Officers). In Newcastle, I frequently see the NE1 BID’s blue-coated ‘Street Rangers’ patrolling the city centre. They often liaise with businesses and the police, provide leaflets and directions for customers, and help run public events such as Monument Movies.
It was Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who successfully pushed for BIDs legislation in England and Wales in 2003. Here, property occupiers would be eligible to vote and, if voted in, be billed through a small ‘top-up’ to their business rates. The Scottish Executive followed in 2007 (where they decided to ballot and tax both the business occupier and owner). Officials in Northern Ireland are still debating whether to introduce BIDs.
BIDs are by no means a British phenomenon. As my previous research on BIDs has shown, they are a North American policy ‘on the move’ (Cook, 2008). They were established in Canada in the late 1960s, and have subsequently emerged in parts of the USA, Jamaica, New Zealand, South Africa, Serbia, Albania, Germany, Ireland and, most recently, the Netherlands.
Although the public debate on BIDs in the UK has largely focused on whether businesses should pay an additional tax, several scholars have criticised BIDs for privatising policy-making, policing and public space. Critics such as Nathan Clough and Robert Vanderbeck (2006) have argued that BIDs are making public space more exclusionary, particularly for troubling, non-consuming groups such as political protesters, youths and the homeless.
Even with this post’s narrow focus on BIDs, we can see that the private sector is already involved in funding, governing and delivering policing in parts of Britain. Private policing is not new, even if the contracting out of the police services is a relatively new business opportunity. Acknowledging this is important as it encourages us to think beyond these privatisation plans (important as they are) to consider who does and who should police our towns and cities.
Clough, N. and Vanderbeck, R. M. (2006) Managing politics and consumption in Business Improvement Districts: The geographies of political activism on Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street Marketplace. Urban Studies, 43 (12): 2261-2284.