Portas returns with 38 recommendations for thriving towns

Mary PortasTime flies when you’re having fun, right? It seems astounding that it’s now 2 and a half years since publication of the Government-commissioned Portas Review of the high street.

Has it been a ‘fun’ time for independent retailers, high streets, and town centres though? And what can we learn from town teams and Portas pilots?

Well, perhaps bruised after some of the responses to her report and television programmes following the progress of pilot towns – and having sometimes demonstrated her own frustration with the media coverage and with some of the Government’s responses to her original Review, Mary Portas is back, with a new “think piece” published this month, Why Our High Streets Still Matter.

Jamie Veitch - External CommunicationsI reviewed Mary Portas’ new think piece on behalf of Towns Alive. Here’s my analysis, (published on their website yesterday).

Towns Alive has written about the Portas Pilots, town teams, and Mary Portas’ recommendations (and how the Government were implementing them) extensively over the last 30 months.  And the organisation produced a special report, one year on from the publication of Portas’ review, examining progress from a number of perspectives.

Since then, of course, there have been further interventions, suggestions, and high street reviews. Last year Bill Grimsey made a splash with the publication of an independent report into the future of the high street. His review was welcomed, with its evidence base and ideas about integrating the online and physical worlds – but I also suggested that squabbling and criticism of report authors was neither helpful nor productive.

And earlier this year architect Ken Shuttleworth and a team including specialists in community development, arts, economics, psychology produced a further report on the future of town centres and high streets. Marked by its determination to emphasise that town centre and high street renewal shouldn’t be focused on retail – in fact that retail should and would thrive if policymakers prioritised making town centres that people want to live in, work in, spend leisure time in; this review (the Future Spaces Report – my commentary is here) echoed work that Towns Alive has done over the last few years: make great places, and then retailers can thrive too.

What, then, does Portas think about the ‘state of the high street now’, about lessons learned, and what needs to happen?  Let’s examine her report below – but in the meantime a quick recap.

In September, after a committee of MPs had grilled Mary Portas, I wrote the following:

It’s justifiable to critique the “game-show-isation” (I made that word up) and celebrat-isation of high street regeneration, and a lack of depth to the television treatment of the attempts to get town teams going in Portas Pilot towns. However, it may be easy and convenient for many to make Portas a scapegoat.

Towns Alive reported in April 2012 that the Government only appeared willing or able to deliver 7 out of Portas’ recommendations in the short term (since then, other action did take place; but Portas herself has appeared frustrated that many of her ideas were not being implemented, and this week when giving evidence to MPs at a Communities and Local Government Select committee she criticised the Government for failing to provide enough support to her work).

In May 2013 Towns Alive commented about whether Portas has been good for town centres. And a round up of “Portas Progress one-year on” reflected the progress that many Pilots and Town Teams have made with real community-led actions, despite frequent frustrations and some ‘ownership’ issues at local level. TA called, though, for wider national and systemic change and focused, long-term leadership from central and local government.

The Times’ columnist Alice Thomson has suggested that grandstanding MPs should stop criticising Portas and start questioning government policy and inaction. And Warwick’s Todd has written a passionate ‘open letter’ describing how, despite not becoming a Pilot, the process has been beneficial for the town.

Portas: Communities have been re-imagining; Government not done enough

In the introduction to her new think-piece, Why the High Street Still Matters, Portas writes (bold added by me):

“…Back in 2011, my main message was that High Streets are vital to our communities. Today, this message has not changed. People still want a place to commune, to share, to meet, to transact. Whilst a lot of towns were, and still are, under huge pressure and with signs of sustained neglect now showing, those basic human needs have not and never will go away.

“At the heart of my report was the idea that High Streets are not dead. Regardless of what the doom-mongers say about the inevitability of “Big Box” retailing or the convenience and simplicity of the internet, High Streets will thrive if we re-imagine them.

“And countless communities have been re-imagining. It’s been 2 years since the Government began to act on my initial recommendations. 333 High Streets have benefited from an investment of £3.6m via their Town Teams. The High Street Innovation Fund has made an additional £10m available for investment and The High Street Renewal Awards have funded seven areas from a £1m budget.

“Whilst progress from central Government has been far slower than I’d have hoped, there are communities up and down the country turning their High Streets around and getting on with it, with or without Government funding.

“And of course there are the 27 Portas Pilot Towns, awarded funding by Government to trial the recommendations. In my opinion this was a hastily created policy from Government. Vague supporting processes meant that for most of the Portas Pilots, bumpy starts were the status quo. Rapidly created Town Teams were given insufficient guidance by Government on how to either establish their objectives or achieve them. These issues still trouble a minority of the Town Teams, but I’m pleased that the Future High Street Forum is now working to address and guide future progress.

“Overall, most of the towns are starting to see successes and I’m delighted that their hard work is beginning to pay off. I’m pointing to some of this progress later on in this piece because I don’t think it gets sufficient exposure.”

She also comments about Business Rates:

“Business rates have emerged as the leading challenge for many businesses on the High Street. Last December Government announced a £1,000 discount on business rates of all occupied property with a rateable value of £50,000 or less to give a leg up to smaller firms….This is a good start, but I look forward to seeing more consideration, by someone more qualified than me, and resulting changes to our business rates system which is universally agreed as not fit for purpose.”

On planning and the potential impact of changes of use:

“Planning has been at the heart of a lot of the problems our High Streets are facing,and Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) are still a major area of concern for me.

“LPAs must work with local communities to know and understand what they need and not behave as masters of the tick box exercise. I’ve added a short review of the latest change to regulations enabling conversion from retail to residential usage (see Annex 2). The Government say they have deliberately added safeguards but I think everyone needs to be aware and wary.”

And on Town Centre First (Towns Alive has been running a “Town Centre First Watch” campaign for many months):

“On another planning matter, “Town Centre First” as a policy is convincingly bandied around but the approval of Out of Town development still happens at a depressing rate so I question whether local and central government really mean it? According to independent research for the Association of Convenience Stores, in November 2013, 76% of new retail floor space given planning approval since the new national planning laws came into force is located outside of town centres.”  Portas is right to address this.

A shout out for Towns Alive

Portas gives Towns Alive a mention early on in the report: “For anyone with an interest in High Streets, or ambitions for a business on one, I recommend these as a non-exhaustive informative or inspiring starting point: StartUp Britain (particularly PopUp Britain), National Association of British Market Authorities, Action for Market Towns, Association for Town and City Management, Meanwhile Space, Urban Pollinators and Revolutionary Arts.”

Getting to the meat and the bones

After its introduction, the report goes into depth, first of all covering Portas’ observations about re-imagining high streets and nieghbourhoods, with many references to a recent (December 2013) paper by Deloitte which Portas considers “one of the most important and well researched pieces on the subject in the public domain published in the last few years.” The Deloitte report found that most people are very satisfied with their high streets – but also that people are extremely dissatisfied by parking charges (and want to see less betting shops and charity shops!)

Sections of Portas’ think-piece then cover:

How the Internet will reflect the way we shop and live now (“If anything the internet should help smaller more local businesses be more connected and competitive, and reach a wider, global audience….some towns are cleverly starting to get in on the act, Hereford’s Open High Street, Ashford’s Digital High Street and businesses like Hubbub (offering home delivery from local retailers) are fantastic examples of retailers making the most of digital technology….“en route” shopping…sees the combination of digital, mobile and bricks & mortar playing a more intertwined relationship – and the High Street as a convenient connection point.”)

Convenience Culture and the Supermarkets (“Not only are food markets making a real come back, the quality and convenience and prices are now able to really compete, especially with smaller format multiple grocers. The people who own the stalls seem to be more commercially minded than ever and know how to take on the big boys and have the balls to do it….local authorities must make sure that if the big grocers are applying for planning permission, any approval firmly places responsibility onto the grocers to add value to the High Street and not disrupt existing business” Furthermore, the multiple retailers need to “be good neighbours and responsible citizens” for economic as well as social reasons.)

Markets (“Recommendation 4 from the Portas Review has been brilliantly implemented by NABMA with the very successful LYLM (Love Your Local Market) Campaign…Markets are where we shop together – where we instinctively know the good stall-holders, where we see what everyone else is buying. I love that markets are a place for entrepreneurs to try things out with less risk.”)

Pop Ups (“80% of shopping is still done in physical shops…many of the Town Teams have used Pop Ups (in fact just about all of them) to very powerful effect, helping demonstrate rapid change…Pop Ups provide a perfect opportunity to bring something new onto the High Street, test new retail formats, and drive footfall by offering experiences and products at limited availability, adding colour and difference to evolving High Streets.”)

If nothing else you MUST read these Case Studies

The case studies open with a clear statement of intent: “Whilst I didn’t have a say in who the Pilots were or how the programme was implemented, I do have a keen interest in how they get on because they matter and we can learn from them. What follows are the sorts of stories and facts that get very little airtime or coverage but which I think more people should hear about; partly because this work deserves more recognition but also because other people can learn from this and perhaps implement some of it in their local communities as well.”

This next section of the report is well worth devouring – and re-reading. The stories of real transformation of the town centres and high streets of Rotherham, Ashford, Loughborough, Chrisp Street (Poplar) and Market Rasen demonstrate the power that communities do have to make real impact and positive changes. These diverse and different towns offer real inspiration and show that change is possible and towns of all types can learn lessons from them. Towns Alive members know this – we see this annually, as we reward the Towns Alive Award winners for their creativity and economic and social impacts. These case studies reinforce that communities can generate real, tangible positive change.

Lessons and calls for action

So we’ve learned alot. But there’s more to do. And Portas is emphatic about priorities:

“We need more commitment and action from Government, specifically on: Access and Parking; Reforming business rates; Landlord registers; Long term support for Town Teams and simplification of the process of forming BID’s (with new funding ideas).”

And she’s cautious about new planning rules and permitted development rights (Towns Alive also suggested caution on this). Portas writes: “The new regulations have been introduced to make it easier to convert retail and business property to residential which when I first heard about it gave me the fear that landlords will sell off property from under the feet of successful business just as much as they sell off vacant property. I could suddenly see a new and unwelcome pressure on the High Street with landlords cashing in faster than you can say Foxton’s.”  An Annex gives Town Teams some useful advice about what they need to know, and do, to prevent the rules from being a threat.

A final annex lists 38 ways town teams, councils, the government and big retailers can do more to help their local high street.  This is a great summary – based on what has worked or proven most effective – which when read in conjunction with the case studies will inspire readers about how to keep up the momentum.

Portas’ report makes clear that more needs to be done – at local level and by Government. But it reminds us that transformation and revival is possible – that decline isn’t inevitable – and that people and communities make a difference; that “the hundreds of towns teams and thousands of volunteers and retailers small and big, council officials, market organisers and stall owners, community workers, landlords and developers who have put their shoulders to the wheel and proved that doing something can make a difference.”

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