Why I was won over by the Queen of Shops
December 13, 2011
On a sleety December day in Wakefield or Wigan, Weston-super-Mare or Wisbech, a walk down the high street amid hard-up Christmas shoppers is a long way from most people’s idea of a good time.
Today Mary Portas, TV’s Queen of Shops and the retail guru appointed by David Cameron to revive our high streets, has delivered her verdict. Can our sad and declining town centres be turned around with a bit of stardust and glamour?
When the news came out back in May, I was a little sceptical. So what spell did the Queen of Shops weave to make me change my mind?
The starting point was that I got involved in the discussion. I contacted a few people who I knew were doing good stuff in town centres because I thought the review should listen to people who are thinking differently. I wanted the review team to understand that high streets could become exciting places even for people whose idea of retail therapy is to get as far away from it as possible.
Within a few weeks I’d brought together nine organisations to submit evidence to the high street review. We called for the reinvention of the high street as a ‘21st century agora’ – a market for social interaction and ideas, not just for goods and services. We said the high street needs to be multifunctional, rooted in the unique talents of the local community.
A subsequent meeting with Mary Portas’s team suggested she not only understood what we were were proposing, but appreciated the extent of the challenge. By September I was feeling much more positive about the review’s prospects.
But there’s a mountain to climb. A weighty review of the evidence, published alongside the high street review and commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, shows how much has changed since out-of-town shopping burst onto the scene in the 1980s: as far as shopping is concerned, town centres are now a minority interest. Most of our retail floorspace is out of town and most shopping out of town or online.