5 reasons Mary Portas has failed to improve our high streets

Two years after retail guru Mary Portas was hired to turn round 12 struggling British high streets, it looks like her changes have failed to make a significant impact.

The government hired Portas to use £1.2m of public funding to revitalise the town centres, but there are now 53 fewer shops than there were in 2012.

Labour said this showed the partnership between the retail consultant and the government had failed.

But the relationship between Portas and the government was complicated – we look at why the plans failed.

Government didn’t listen on free parking

The government has introduced a series of measures to relax the rules on parking in town centres, such as less enforcement and 10 minute “grace periods” for on-street parking where drivers are not issued with tickets straight away. However, what Mary Portas suggested, and almost everyone agreed, was an end to town centre parking charges.

Not enough support for the towns

In October 2013, the government created a new £500,000 fund for Business Improvement Districts which are areas identified by local businesses to help create areas where start-ups could flourish. However, critics have said the town centre volunteers have not been given enough advice and support, and a lot of the money hasn’t been spent.

No change in business rates

Another of Portas’s recommendations was to reduce business rates in the areas local councils wanted to improve. The government didn’t appear keen to do this so business rates continued to be a problem for small businesses. In this year’s budget, however, George Osborne did include some small measures to help, including discounts and reliefs for some businesses and allowing businesses to pay over 12 months instead of 10 to help with cashflow.

Out of town shopping centres given approval

Mary Portas herself criticised the number of approvals for out of town retail units earlier this year. She said the “town centre first” approach the government said it was taking wasn’t being used, after 76% of the new retail floorspace given planning approval was given to out-of-town developments.

£1.2m wasn’t enough

The towns seemed happy with their average £100,000 each, but in reality it wasn’t enough to hire professionals to get the work done and most of it needed to be done by volunteers – some of whom floundered with knowing how to spend it. The poor state many of the town centres had been allowed to get to also meant £100,000 didn’t always stretch to cover everything that could have been done to bring them up to standard.

What do you think is wrong with the British high street? Tweet me your thoughts @robynvinter

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Readers' comments (1)

  • HI Rob,

    Appreciate the fun in positioning a bashing argument, but even within your subheaders you show some contradictions.

    I think you have missed the point really. The Portas Review did a sterling job of managing to refocus passion and energy onto parts of the retail landscape that the big business-watchers seemed to have given up on. True councils and government have been slow at the top end, but at the grassroots level, which was the genuis of the Portas Pilots, success has been happening. Firstly we now have people talking passionately, sometimes angrily, but often supportively, about high streets that were neglected, and we have generated swells of activity and interest that continue today.
    The critics seemed to expect volunteer groups to band together, learn retail theory, professionalise their approach beyond that of retail consultants and developers, and become a team of marketing communications experts, legislative experts, event coordinators social media specialists and consumer behaviouralists even before the funding was allocated.
    In truth, in Leamington's case, as in other Portas Towns, the achievements have far exceeded what the professionals you advocate above would have achieved. The intuitive understanding of retailers, residents and customers is indeed in advance of that of a distant research group, and simply aiming to deliver an amalgam of those voices does indeed achieve results. In Leamington, we have taken a vacancy rate down from over 21% to now less than 5% - such that we are struggling to place two business start-up (HEART-Ups in our case) competition winners and might have to give them a street kiosk instead so intense has the demand been. We have seen whole buildings repainted and refurbished, cafes open, bakeries open, and most recently a new ice cream parlour. We are still running footfall events and hope to see over 5,000 in our part of town this weekend, and the list goes on. This has been all generated from following, and resiting, and sometimes arguing with, but never without the input of retailers, residents and local business owners.

    The trick was with the Portas Pilots was to lift the vision, to get people to talk to one another, and to learn to work together a little more in order to make things happen, and that, eventually, has been the net result. Team working and retail development takes time - to achieve what portas towns have done in just 24 months is astonishing - its the spirit that counted - it just needed to be nurtured, and that, perhaps, is what we needed a leader like Mary to encourage people to do.

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