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The Portas review

Just before Christmas the publication of Mary Portas’ review of England’s high streets dominated the headlines. But how much difference is it likely to make? We asked Neil McInroy to give his verdict

Q. Do you feel the review got to the heart of high street decline and the reasons for it?
The review did get to an understanding of why there’s high street decline and in the supporting documentation it did catalogue the range of factors which were contributing to this process. However, the report did not look at the other systemic factors which impinge upon the high street. It said ‘this is what is happening’ but didn’t look at the wider why?
This is important because these factors are what will ultimately control whether the high street finds a new blend of activity. It’s very much a review that isolates the high street – yet it’s not something that can be treated as a standalone thing. No high street is an island, but this review has made it one. They are intrinsically interdependent and reflect the wider places in which they’re located. The review failed to use the high street as a lens with which to focus on those wider factors and the problems.

Q. Do you believe the review’s recommendations offer a sustainable and realistic path to reviving ailing towns?
Its recommendations are worthwhile, useful and will help. However, there’s nothing particularly surprising or novel – nothing that hasn’t been said (or in some cases done) before over the years. There is very little in here that your high street retailer, town centre manager does not appreciate. Ultimately, all the ideas are ultimately shaped by a shopping-focused perspective and that’s why it fails to deal with the wider issues.
So, for example, while the review recognises the need to look beyond retail in our high streets, its recommendations tend to be driven by the ‘shopping experience’ and the need for what’s basically a wider consuming culture. It’s not a culture of philanthropy, of volunteering, of inclusivity, of sharing. I initially called it a shopper’s shopping list for the high street.

Q. In her foreword to the review, Mary Portas says out of town retail has drained town centres – does the review offer solutions to remedy this?
No, not really. The problems of the high street are bound up with the wider problems of place. I’m not saying we should ignore the specific issues on the high street but that we have to frame high streets as a potential catalyst for broader improvements.
The current planning framework and sector lobbying groups are very strong and it will require a significant policy shift to tackle the damage done not by just out of town retail but out of town development in general. There will also have to be changes in expected and types of returns on investment.
But it’s also about a cultural shift in terms of attitudes to shopping, travel and how we view our use of space. While Portas offers some little slivers of vision of where we could be moving to, her review is unlikely to give us anything that’s going to significantly accelerate changes to the way we shop or experience the town centre or high street. It doesn’t really offer anything to bring about significant behavioural, planning or legislative change.

Q. Given your own disappointment with the review’s conclusions, were you surprised by the largely positive reaction from others in the regeneration and economic development world?
I wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the Portas review. I felt she was listening and that she had – from a narrow shopping perspective – embraced the wider placemaking agenda. But I was very surprised by the reaction of some within the sector who appeared to see this as some kind of breakthrough report or as the start of a new era for the high street.
The report obviously struck a chord with the placemaking world. It would certainly appear that Mary Portas had got it! Also people were either relieved, toadying, or felt they had to welcome it because it was a big, well-publicised review commissioned by the prime minister.
But it’s important that with any review process of this ilk that we put it into context. Context is everything. In this case we have a review taking place in a context that’s too narrowly defined spatially, is essentially about shopping, and comes at a time when the high street economy has irreversibly changed. On top of that, the environmental context has changed and continues to change.
As a sector it’s important we don’t jump on the bandwagon and that we see these things in their place, within a particular moment in time. This review represents one particular moment and it’s contained and constrained by a whole range of extraneous factors.
Sometimes these reviews can be seen as a way to inspire and cajole a shift in attitudes – the idea that a series of small things can plant the seeds of something that grows and makes bigger things happen. It may do, but I fear that this seed is so insignificant, that it is unlikely to bear fruit.

Q. What would your key recommendations have been?
The review should have had a wider remit, perhaps a review of the high street and how it relates to the wider place and its future destiny and how we plan for it. That would open up a whole different avenue of inquiry. But here are a few specific measures I would have recommended:
1. For both the public and private sectors to promote a wider recognition and understanding that the high street is not an island and is dependent on wider aspects of place. You simply can’t isolate the high street from what’s going on around it
2. Stronger legislative curbs on out of town development
3. Special legislative provision to allow local procurement by the public sector to take place – i.e. purchasing goods and services from local retailers and other businesses
4. Legislation to allow vacant land and assets to be taken over by the public sector, community sector or social enterprises and utilised for local economic and social purposes
5. It’s not just out of town retail that’s the problem, it’s out of town development more generally. One solution could be urban development boundaries, which significantly curb land and building on development within areas which abut the city, district and town centres
6. Local authorities and the private sector should work together to provide free town centre wi-fi for businesses and individuals – a simple intervention that could provide a huge boost to local innovation

 

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