Confused approach to out of town retail: Government paying lip service to its own ideas, says high street ‘guru’ Portas

Last week in the press, headlines (albeit small ones) screamed: High street guru Mary Portas has blasted Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles in her fight to rescue the nation’s High Streets…

While the decision to make Portas the official ‘Queen of the High Street’ may have been a cynical stunt (why do we need a celebrity to enlighten us to what we already know? Sadly, because she gets her voice heard…), her policy suggestions (many provided by exhaustive consultant reports) were sound. In the future, she says, high streets could see a move away from retail.

But it transpires that Mary’s celebrity voice is not enough. Lately, Portas has accused the Government of paying little more than ‘lip service’ to the ideas she has put forward. She was highly critical of Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles recent support for the building of an 82,000 square foot supermarket on the seafront at Margate, one of the Portas Pilot towns chosen to be awarded a share of the Government’s high street innovation fund.

Access a selection of RUDI’s high street and town centre analysis

Portas has rightly said the Government needs to introduce clear policies and plans to save British high streets, describing them as the ‘heartbeats’ of each community, and claimed that more ‘joined-up thinking’ is needed. There certainly seems to be some confusion. Already this month, Communities secretary Eric Pickles has approved outline plans for a business park on the outskirts of Burbage in Leicestershire, after ruling that it would meet the need for office space in the area and would ‘not damage nearby town centres’.

In the same week, proposals for a new out-of-centre supermarket in Motherwell, Lanarkshire were rejected by the Scottish Government following a ruling by a reporter that the scheme’s impact on the town centre would be ‘significant and adverse’.

In an interview with Channel 5 News, Portas said: ‘We need to pull this together. We need some clear policies or planning. We cannot have a high street first policy, with the Government saying ‘Yes, we believe in it’ and then have the Secretary of State signing off out of town retail. That doesn’t work.

‘I think we need some very clear policies on how we develop tomorrow’s new businesses. If you look at any business or any future growth one has to invest in the new, and at the moment the new can’t come on the high street because the cost of rates.

‘I have been speaking to businesses where their rates have been more than their staff costs and their rents together which is beyond ridiculous. So those are clear policies if the government are really saying we believe in it they need to invest in making changes around those policies.’

In future years, Portas said she could see retail units occupying only about 30% of the high street, saying that coffee shops, creches and sports centres could fill empty units.

‘I have seen the destruction when it goes, and I have seen when it works it’s probably the most influential social infrastructure that we have in our lives,’ said Portas. ‘It is our community around our neighbours and our high streets, and I think to take that away would be a crime to communities and to society.’

In a YouGov survey for Channel 5 News, some 63% of those polled said they did not think government policy had gone far enough to help ailing high streets. Just over half of the 1,866 adults questioned said they thought there was a future for their local high street – but a third disagreed. More than a quarter, 26%, said they blamed competition from online shopping for the problems facing local outlets.

Housing Minister Mark Prisk said: ‘ High streets are changing and this Government is committed to help communities adapt their high streets to meet those changes.

‘In the case of Margate, as the decision letter sets out, the Government agreed with the independent planning inspector that the regeneration project, which includes a hotel, could prove to be a positive benefit to the town centre, create jobs and encourage footfall along the seafront and into the High Street.

‘We have taken clear action following the Portas Review, by lifting planning restrictions to help landlords make better use of their empty properties, doubling small business rate relief to help small shops and provided communities across the country with a multi-million pound package of support so they can try new ideas to drive their local economy.

‘But this is just the start, which is why we brought together the Future High Streets Forum, made up of leading figures from the retail industry, to drive forward ideas and policies that help high streets thrive and prosper.’

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