Published: 06:06, 05 June 2019
| Updated: 16:34, 05 June 2019
City centre traders are revolting against a divisive scheme forcing them to pay for an initiative focused on boosting business and footfall.
Dozens of people have signed a petition against the Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District ahead of a referendum-style vote deciding its future.
Known as BID, the initiative was launched in the city in 2014 after securing 64% of votes from qualifying businesses.
But as it looks to secure a second five-year term it is facing a challenge from traders fed up with paying a mandatory levy to fund the scheme.
They claim they have seen little benefit from the £2.9 million spent by BID since its launch and want it voted out by businesses when the new ballot opens in two weeks.
But the team at BID - fronted by chief executive Lisa Carlson - is hopeful it can convince enough traders to secure the more than 50% of the vote share it needs.
"We know we can't please everyone all of the time but what a BID has to do is create a common benefit to create a trading environment across the city," Mrs Carlson said.
"The BID can pay to enhance phone signal coverage as that is what is really needed.
"We run the Christmas lights and take business matters into our own hands and deal with them. Our model is the only way the city can achieve that.
"The vacancy rate is lower than it was five years ago - and if there is a vacant unit we can set up temporary pop-ups so they aren't empty.
"Without us there wouldn't be any replacements as the council can't afford to invest as much as we do."
Among the many things BID funds are Christmas lights, street cleaning, floral displays, marketing and investment in events. Among its top priorities if voted back in will be to improve 4G coverage in the city centre.
Under the BID scheme, businesses must pay 1.6% of their rateable value in a single payment each year, with no instalment plan available.
When it was first launched in 2014, many traders were taken to court for failing to cough up.
Of the 752 votes set to be cast between June 13 and July 11, 16 of them will go to Canterbury City Council, reflecting the number of rateable premises it owns.
On Thursday, councillors sitting on the authority's regeneration and property committee agreed to back BID with all of its votes.
Other supporters include McDonald's and Zizzi's.
Signatures were collected by Debbie Barwick, who has owned Revivals clothing store for more than 30 years.
"The BID has been running for five years and during that time has the city improved? No, it has not," she said.
"There are now 34 empty shops, Nasons has gone, Debenhams will go and the city looks filthy with graffiti and rubbish everywhere.
"A new five-year plan has been given out by BID promising the world. This happened five years ago and the state of Canterbury is now worse than ever."
Sandra Hayworth, from Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, is pro-BID.
She said: "Last December we saw a record number of people enjoy our hospitality.
"I believe we wouldn't see this increase if it wasn't for BID - the feedback from our guests was how Christmassy the city was."
Sedat Ozdogan, who has run Westgate Dry Cleaners for more than 20 years, questions the thousands spent on festive lights.
"I don't care about the Christmas lights," he said. "Having some lights up doesn't bring more people to my business.
"And I don't need hanging baskets - a lot of them can't go on the old buildings anyway. If I really wanted, I could buy some cheap baskets myself.
"We don't need their street cleaning either. Every shop owner goes out and keeps their premises clean."
Voluntary levy payer Cllr Louise Jones-Roberts, who runs the Club Chemistry nightclub, said: "We've got someone in our corner fighting for what we need and shouting about what we have to offer.
"It's not by chance we have under half the national rate of shop vacancies - BID do a lot for us."
Ahmed Qaderi, from the Kings Market Store, shares a similar view on the lights.
"The Christmas lights don't even come down to my shop, so what's the point?" he said.
"It's money I really don't need to be paying."