More is needed to be done to save our High Streets

Mary Portas, retail expert and founder of the Portas agency, gives her frank assessment on how the Government has responded to her groundbreaking study into the nation’s High Streets.

Mary Portas
Mary Portas

It’s been three years since I published ‘The Portas Review’; my independent report on the future of our high streets.

I knew back then that our High Streets were in trouble. It wasn’t identikit high streets we needed to tackle but empty properties, out of town planning, unwieldy business rates, a restrictive ‘use class’ system and of course, parking. On top of this, online was growing and the economy looked bleak.

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The only hope for our future high streets was a big dose of policy change, a wallop of imagination and the remarkable determination of local people. This fatal combination would re-envision them into places to commune, to share, to meet, to transact, to live.

In 2011, I said that the worst thing that could happen to my review was for it to be left languishing in a filing cabinet, in some dusty corner, in a Civil Service building.

I think it’s safe to say that didn’t happen. What’s resulted has been a roller coaster ride – for me personally and for small businesses and communities up and down the country trying to breathe life into their high streets.

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 – 333 high streets have benefited from an investment of £3.6 million via their Town Teams (interested groups that have funding control). The High Street Innovation Fund has made an additional £10 million available for investment and The High Street Renewal Awards have funded seven towns from a £1 million budget.

Markets are thriving and valiantly supported by Love Your Local Market fortnight. And of course there are the 27 Portas Pilot Towns, awarded Government funding to trial the recommendations in my report.

The results in some of these towns is astonishing. But is this enough?

Three years on, there is still a big job to be done. The Government has made token gestures in response to my review; but much more needs to happen, and fast.

Why are there still so many empty shops left deteriorating on our high streets? Local authorities should be granted the power to take control of these premises and use them creatively or commercially for the benefit of the community.

Why are we still imposing crippling business rates which were established in Elizabethan times? The current system is out of date and favours online and big business. The Autumn Statement introduced some more rate relief measures, but these are just tinkering around the edges.

Why do we have to wait until 2016 for a full review (and who knows how long after that for a new system)?

The Government must also publish online best practice guidelines as a toolkit for any Town Teams taking it upon themselves to make change.

In nearly every town I visit, I hear that parking costs are a menace – surely some council out there somewhere has trialled an effective parking scheme that could be implemented somewhere else in the country?

This is all bread and butter stuff that is yet to happen. How can Town Teams implement real change without the policy changes needed to enable them?

Finally, there absolutely needs to be a focus on town regeneration over out-of-town planning. And if the big supermarkets are heading back on to our high streets, where is our shopping list of requirements before granting planning permission?

I have always said that the battle to save our high streets isn’t just about shops. We will never just have high streets which just sell stuff. The mix will include shops, but could also include housing, offices, leisure, schools, social, commercial and cultural enterprises. And towns up and down the country are busy working away to grow their future high street which is exactly that.

The real story behind our current fight for the high streets is about people. 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.

Rotherham and Market Rasen or Deal and Sherbourne, with or without Government funding, they are turning their high streets around and getting on with it.

Their dedication has made the place they live, work, socialise and shop a place they can cherish and be proud of.

And I am proud to have been part of this worthy effort with them.