Future of Ilford Town Centre being mapped out as crucial vote nears

Ben Collins at work in his office

Ben Collins at work in his office - Credit: Archant

Trying to please a handful of people can be hard enough, but trying to please hundreds of Ilford business owners is an entirely different proposition.

Ben Collins at work in his office

Ben Collins at work in his office - Credit: Archant

And their pleasure, or otherwise, will soon be measured in a vote – not to elect a politician but to choose something a little more innovative.

So innovative it has given Ilford Town Centre its own police team and just launched a website offering special deals to entice shoppers.

The man at the helm of Ilford’s Business Improvement District (BID) is Ben Collins.

Those three words – Business Improvement District – may not exactly roll off the tongue but they have certainly made their mark in Ilford.

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“It’s about making it work for every business,” says Ben.

“That’s been the challenge – how to get businesses involved. They’ve been really open.”

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More than 460 businesses in Ilford Town Centre pay 1.2 per cent of their rateable value into the BID each year.

That means hundreds of business owners are metaphorically and literally investing in the BID and its aims.

Since it launched in Ilford in 2009, it has put its money towards a raft of schemes and events promoting the town centre.

With its five-year term ending in April 2014, each business will be balloted on whether to renew the BID.

They will have to decide if they have seen enough in the last few years – and can expect enough in the next few years – to put a cross in the “yes” box.

BID manager Ben, 37, is overseeing that process and is helping to put together a business plan.

“You can’t please all of the people all of the time,” he says. “Some businesses will like everything the BID delivers. Some will have hobby horses as their priorities.

“That’s why the engagement process is so important.

“We’ve recently surveyed them all, asking what their personal priorities are.

“That’s why we do research – so we can please businesses and deliver. We don’t just plough on blindly.”

Firms will also have a face-to-face interview with Ben and his team as they create a list of priorities and ambitions that will form part of their renewal business plan.

With about £360,000 from the businesses each year, plus grants from other bodies, there is plenty of money to spend – but it is not a bottomless pit.

Businesses will be balloted in October/November.

Not only will more than 50 per cent need to vote for renewal, but more than 50 per cent of the area’s total rateable value will also need to be behind the second chapter of the BID.

How much is the town centre looking over its shoulder with the likes of Westfield Stratford City only a few minutes away by train?

Ben says: “I think Westfield is more of a destination-type experience.

“What Ilford has is a strong sense of community and convenience.

“Going forward, everything we do will be with the local population in mind in terms of events in particular.

“Vaisakhi, for example, and we’d like to do something for Diwali.”

He added: “It’s just about being able to differentiate ourselves. We have very good independent shops here.

“It’s about knitting everything we do together and promoting it.

“We want to work hard on the loyal customers who love it here and making it a better experience for them.

“And we want to work hard with the many people who have a decision to make.

“They may think about going to Lakeside, for example, but we need to be in front of them to make that decision more difficult.

“When they come here we have to make sure it’s a quality experience so that they come here again instinctively.”

Ipswich-born Ben’s business experience stretches back more than a decade, from completing a degree in business studies at Suffolk College.

His first job was with local paper the Evening Star – now called the Ipswich Star – where he was a newspaper sales executive, organising promotions and building relationships in the area.

He worked his way up to brand manager and after five years left in 2005 to work as operations manager for Ipswich Central – the firm responsible for running Ipswich town centre’s BID, the first in the UK to be accredited by British BIDs.

After a one-year stint at Suffolk County Council, he joined Bayswater BID in Westminster as manager, just after traders voted for the district to be formed.

“Every town centre is different,” says Ben. “It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made going to manage Bayswater.

“They were ready to go [with the BID] but there was nothing really in place.”

Having become Ilford BID’s manager in October, Ben – who has been married to Karen for eight years and is father to Joseph, seven, and George, four – has had to quickly get up to speed with the area and the people who make it tick.

Speaking of the job, he said: “I really like the diversity of each day. One thing you can’t be is stuck in the office. You need to be out there, visible and available. I think that’s absolutely key to make a success of the job.”

Earlier this month, website www.ilfordvip.com went live, giving shoppers access to unique deals from some of the BID’s hundreds of members.

It is the latest innovation of a BID which is aiming to maintain the upward curve.

One area where the curve arguably need to be shunted upwards is the night-time economy.

“I think it needs to be family focused more,” says Ben. “It’s about making the town centre experience more than just shopping.

“Shopping will always be the crucial anchor, but the more people spend time here the more time they spend with the businesses.”

It has been four years of achievements for Ilford BID, with everything from the formation of its own police team to regular cleaning in and around the town centre and extra planting being funded.

“I want to make sure every pound, every penny spent, is having a return for businesses,” says Ben.

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