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Experience Guildford CEO ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ On Crucial Ballot But Members’ Opinions Polarised

Published on: 1 Sep, 2022
Updated on: 2 Sep, 2022

By Hugh Coakley

A crucial vote in two months’ time will decide the fate of Experience Guildford which promotes the town’s businesses.

Their CEO says she is “cautiously optimistic” that business ratepayers in the town centre will vote to approve the latest business plan and for her team to continue their service. It is the third time since 2012 that such a vote has been held.

A Dragon survey of shops in the town appears to support this optimism but has revealed starkly polarised opinion on whether businesses believe the Business Improvement District (BID), run by Experience Guildford as a non-profit company, adds sufficient value to businesses in the town.

Views ranged from “they are amazing” from supporters of the scheme to “a waste of time” from objectors.

Ben Darnton was voting yes but with reservations. Experience Guildford “isn’t as influential as they once were,” he said.

Ben Darnton from Ben’s Collectors in Tunsgate said: “I will vote yes but it isn’t as easy a decision as it once was. I wouldn’t want them to lose their jobs. Sadly, Experience Guildford isn’t as influential as they once were.”

The survey asked shopkeepers whether they would vote yes or no on October 27 to whether Experience Guildford should continue for another five years. 62 per cent of retail businesses spoken to said “yes”, 20 per cent “no” and 18 per cent were undecided.

There are 555 eligible voters from the non-domestic ratepayers list including 27 votes for GBC where they occupy business premises.

Only retail outlets were contacted in The Dragon’s survey. We spoke to 60 shops out of the 240 retail and hospitality units in the BID area. The sample indicated a large majority of chain stores were intending to vote yes (76 per cent “yes”, 12 per cent “no” and 12 per cent “don’t know”).

The Experience Guildford town rangers are popular with shopkeepers. “They keep us informed,” said one trader. Photo from the BID’s Business Plan 2022.

The Experience Guildford town rangers featured for many as a major reason for voting yes. “We like them keeping us informed. I like our town rangers. When do you see a policeman in the area nowadays?” said one shopkeeper in upper High Street.

The independent traders, on the other hand, were less likely than the chains to vote yes (51 per cent yes, 26 per cent no and 23 per cent don’t know). Value for money and resentment to be paying what they considered to be an unnecessary additional cost was a complaint heard more often from the “indies” than the chains.

The ballot, a postal vote process conducted by the GBC Returning Officer, requires a simple majority both in votes cast and in the rateable value of votes cast.

It is a blunt choice. A yes majority in both thresholds will mean Experience Guildford will continue their work in the town up to 2028, funded by a mandatory one per cent levy payable yearly.

But if business ratepayers vote no, Experience Guildford will cease to exist from January 31, 2023.

The vote in 2017 produced a huge majority of 85 per cent of individual votes and 90 per cent by rateable value with a 54 per cent turnout

Experience Guildford CEO Amanda Masters said “there is no Plan B”.

Experience Guildford CEO Amanda Masters said she was “cautiously optimistic” the result from the vote on October 27 would be yes. “But” she said, quoting from their Business Plan 2022, “there is no Plan B and no other organisation will replace these projects and services if we are voted out.”

Long-standing objector to the BID scheme in the town, Greg Foster, from the skate and clothes shop Decade in Jeffries Passage, queried BID money being spent on the yes campaign by Experience Guildford. “There has been no money spent on a no campaign so it isn’t democratic. I have no confidence in this process.”

Those supporting the BID were generally enthusiastic. Pip Ellis. manager of The Star pub in Quarry Street, said: “They are amazing, pub watch, Street Angels, it would be a massive loss if they were voted out. The town wouldn’t be as safe. I think we take them for granted.”

But those against were unconvinced the BID was value for the mandatory levy of one per cent of rateable value for all non-domestic ratepayers in the BID area. One angry shopkeeper who didn’t want to be named said: “They are a waste of time. Give two-thirds of the levy to a PR firm and they would do a better job.”

Another said: “This quasi-public body is taking over council and police functions. Why should we be paying extra for it.”

The first approval ballot for Elevate Guildford Ltd, trading as Experience Guildford, was in 2012. They run the BID as a non-profit company specifically set up for the purpose of collaborating with businesses to promote the town centre and the businesses.

With an annual income of around £600,000, they have nine employees, including five town rangers, who help to organise projects such as the Business Crime Reduction Partnership, Best Bar None, the Customer Service awards, marketing and the town rangers themselves.

There are other nearby BIDs in Dorking, Croydon and Camberley.

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Responses to Experience Guildford CEO ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ On Crucial Ballot But Members’ Opinions Polarised

  1. David Osrin Reply

    September 9, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    I have looked at Experience Guildford’s 2021 accounts. Points of note for me:

    Administration expenses account for over 60 per cent of their income. With staffing costs accounting for over 40 per cent.

    Despite this, they still have a surplus of £130,000 for 2021 with cash in the bank of £144,155 as at 21 Jan 2021, which goes up to around £300,000 if you include debtors.

    Debtors for 2021 is £159,051, eight times more than that of the previous year. This is a quarter of their income. Interesting to see a £40,000 provision for bad debts. What about the rest, and who is responsible for collecting this, at what cost and to whom?

    It must be GBC as there are no legal fees in the accounts. This means it comes out of council tax. I would question why GBC entities are given a vote, but on this basis alone I would think it is reason enough for them to vote “No” to continuing with the BID.

    I’d love to know what makes up the £150k of “cost of sales”

    If they are not able to spend the money, what is the point of collecting it? If this was a public company, they would be required to return the cash to shareholders or invest it in the business. This organisation does neither. They are more akin to a tax office that just collects and hoards cash.

    This organisation is simply not cost-effective or efficient at delivering services. And that’s before we even talk about the “Town Rangers” or the pointless award ceremonies.

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