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A shopping list for high streets from the queen of shops

The Portas Review, is a simple, action focussed, ‘new season’ type shopping list.  However, fettered by its high street focus, and it only sees part of the story.  It fails to adequately explore the high street in relation to wider systemic issues as regards local economies, planning and the environment and the changing wider function of cities and towns.

18 months ago, I visited a Scottish town, where the economic development director told me, ‘Even the pound shops are closing down’.  Behind his words is an economic story of place.  This was an important historic town on edge of greater Glasgow city region.  However, new shopping centres in Greater Glasgow, investment in Glasgow town centre, good transport links to Glasgow, declining local industry, a town which had lost its economic raison d’etre and its energy, meant that its high street and town centre was in a bad shape.

So, it was much needed and encouraging that the government commissioned Mary Portas – the ‘queen of shops’ to conduct a review into high streets and town centres.  Queen Mary has clearly been listening, to what is readily known – the town centre is dying and we need to rethink what its future function and role should be.

The report, is an enjoyable read, and should be used as a shopping list type resource, to tick off and accelerate ideas (many of which are already happening), especially around flexible use of shops and activating the high street.  I also think her focus on the community and local organic energy is very important.  Whilst, the report is not strong on it, there is also an implicit recognition that the solution is not to be found in the traditional consumer market alone, but that we need some public policy and intervention, helping town centres to shift the balance away from traditional commercialism, toward greater social and public uses and activity.  There should also be government food for thought, not least when it comes to recognising the importance of firm interventionist planning which both protects, nurtures and enables new forms of uses.

Overall, the report, displays an understanding that high streets and town centres are systems.  Indeed the review has a chapter dedicated to thinking about town centres as whole system.  (Though I am not sure we really want ‘town centres running like a business’?  This is quite odd, and perhaps reflects a vision that town centres, just need to be like the best mall ever!)

She has also picked up on the sexy and creative world of place-making.  By this, I mean, it looks at the experiences, uses, design and relationships which take place within the town centre.  This is good and gets me and fellow place making professionals excited.

However, my praise stops there.  Much of the review reflects what is happening anyway.  There is some great existing work being done.  It may accelerate this, but even if every recommendation is adopted, this will not herald in a new resilient future for our high streets.   Furthermore, whilst some of the review, may seem ‘new’ within the British context, it’s pretty standard fare, in an international context.  Much of this thinking, has been growing in America and Australasia for the past 30 years, where less historic downtowns and the proliferation of Malls, has prompted many responses akin to what the Portas review suggest.

Touched upon in the accompanying technical report, but which is given skance attention in the review, is that the high street and town centres are not stand alone systems.  The wider city, regional and national economy, environmental change, public service reform, transport, housing, consumerism, demographics, health of the social sector are all important externalities which play into high streets and town centres.

The key here is not just what happens in high streets and town centres.  Whatever we do with them, is significantly influenced by the context and any systemic problems.  Like my Scottish town example, the fundamental resilience and future function of that town centre and high street is predicated on how it relates to, and networked within the town, or city they are within.  For example, the future of a town centre relates overwhelmingly to the economic health or ill-health of the wider area.  Or the extent to which the area has good or bad transport links to a neighbouring and bigger city centre.  Or it is based on future housing provision and tenure mix within any given locality.  This, will impinge significantly, on what can or should be done to a town centre and high streets.

CLES Town resilience work, which is up and running in Northumberland and Tameside, is deeply aware of the importance of the place making and small scale planning and local visioning.  It supports many of the things which Portas suggests.

However, our work is also aware that no high street or town centre is an island, and wider influences affect what needs to be done within specific areas, including high streets.  As a result we assess town centres in relation to these externalities. Acknowledging the importance of networks, within and outwith any given locality

Overall, well done Queen of shops! The shopping list is great.  It is also wonderful that you have got it – Place making is important, town centre’s are systems.  However, their future function and resilience is not to be solely found from what happens within them, but how they relate to a fast changing and turbulent world which surrounds them.

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