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The truth about the Portas funding ‘fiasco’

portassmallGiven that there was no timetable for spending the Portas funding, it’s odd that the pilots have been heavily criticised in the press for not having spent all the money yet.  I thought I’d have a coffee with Ben Barker, secretary of the Greater Bedminster Community Partnership (GBCP) who set up the Portas pilot town team in my neighbourhood, to find out if the fiascos we’ve read about are the norm.

Bedminster was actually the highest spending pilot, yet still came in for ill-informed criticism from Paul Turner-Mitchell, who’s FOI request sparked the original unresearched Independent article that’s been repeated ad nauseum across the press. Blogging on the Guardian online he said: ‘There are countless bad examples. Bedminster Council spent £15,510 on consultants …’: but Bedminster isn’t a town and there’s no such thing as Bedminster Council. It’s an urban suburb of Bristol so Bristol Council is the accountable body, who have spent none of the Portas money because it’s all held by GBCP.   The word ‘consultant’ is deliberately incendiary; this is a £100k project (actually more like £200k now) overseen by volunteers and they made the perfectly sensible decision to employ a fixed term worker to co-ordinate its delivery.

Turner-Mitchell made sweeping criticism of all the pilots when he added, ‘Why does the government think that schemes to reverse years of decline on the high street can only be delivered by councils? If you want to see creative solutions, real innovation then you have to open up schemes like this to entrepreneurs, creatives, community groups. You’ve got to bring fresh thinking into the room. At the moment they’re sinking in bureaucracy.’

Bedminster’s pilot is in fact delivered by a community group involving creatives and entrepreneurs (including the mayor George Ferguson who is an independent local entrepreneur) in exactly the bureaucracy-free way Turner-Mitchell states will make all the difference.

The FOI asked each pilot what had been ‘spent’ at the end of 2012, so that was the very narrow remit of the information provided: Bedminster had ‘spent’ just over a third of the award. However, had it been asked what’s been committed then it could have provided more valuable information showing that the whole £100k is committed and will be spent by March. They’re not in the business of paying contractors up front and would be rightly criticised if they were.

In Bedminster the Portas money is being used to develop a Business Improvement District (BID), a long-term scheme by which local businesses pay an additional levy to fund improvements to retail areas above and beyond what the local authority provides. In Bedminster there are 230 businesses with a rateable value making them eligible to vote, from huge players like Asda to tiny family businesses, all of whom need to be engaged for the BID to be successful (starting to understand the need for that co-ordinator now?).

This engagement work was carried out in the first phase from May to October and the pilot is now coming to the end of its second phase, or demonstration period, with the remaining funding being spent on events, markets, street arts, greening of urban streets, theatre in the shops, lighting projects, a Bedminster bug trail to rival the Bristol gorillas and a host of other delights. It’s easy now to see why they employed a co-ordinator.

All of this activity has itself levered in cash and in-kind contributions that well exceed the original £100k, including one day a week economic development officer time from Bristol Council (which brings in assistance from other council departments) and £25k council cash for ‘pocket parks’; pro bono marketing and legal work; cash donations from larger retailers; and arts council funding. The police have provided masses of in-kind work devoted to crime reduction and bringing the many local publicans together to work collaboratively.

Phase three is the BID vote in March with results due in April which, if successful, will generate upwards of £85k per year for the next five years along with an organised business community dedicated to improving Bedminster’s retail streets. Its core aims – to create vibrancy, reduce crime, joint purchasing to reduce costs, advocacy, and marketing – are dedicated to giving retailers the best chance of surviving not only evolving shopping habits, but also this crippling recession. This is not empty PR or vacuous celebrity pixie dust.

Whilst the Portas experiment might not be empty PR locally, nationally the government hasn’t bought into the principles and last year hiked business rates by 5.6%, looting an extra £350m from the high street. They’ve compounded the increase by pushing back the 2015 business rates revaluation until 2017, effectively forcing businesses to continue to pay at 2008 pre-crash property values for an extra two years in a move they claim is beneficial because it provides certainty over future rates. Bad enough they kick retailers in the teeth with the postponement which was predicted to reduce rates for the majority, shameful to then tell them it’s for their own good.

Mary Portas herself seems to be doing her best to make a success of the scheme. Her recent visit here wasn’t the disruptive irrelevant showboat we’ve read in the press about other places. She was positive and encouraging, she endorsed the work being done by letting the team know they’ve got a good reputation amongst the wider initiative. She covered a lot of ground, visiting as many shops as possible, giving praise for innovative ways of working. The visit gave the town team’s work a burst of positive local publicity just prior to the BID vote and helped keep momentum rocketing along during this final stage of activity.

It was simply unfair of Turner-Mitchell to criticise and write off all of the Portas pilots because he was unhappy with some of them; and simply lazy of the press to repeat his views without looking deeper.

 

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Dan Thompson
Dan Thompson
11 years ago

The Portas Pilot brief was for ‘local leaders to come up with innovative ideas of their own to boost struggling high streets and town centres. I want to see local leaders ready to try new things, experiment and innovate.’ How does a BID meet that – they’re tried and tested, not new, experimental or innovative?

And the bidders for Portas Pilots already had to ‘be able to clearly…demonstrate strong support for it from the local community and a wide range of local partners.’ If that was demonstrated in the bid – then that engagement with local business through a paid position shouldn’t be needed.

george grace
george grace
11 years ago

Thanks Keren for bringing some balance and perspective to this debate after nonsense from The Mail and more disappointingly The Independent.
I’m closely involved in the Bedminster Town Team as you may know.
Ref the comment above – the second recommendation in the Portas Review is to set up a BID – so not sure why we’re being criticised here. Everyone knows that £100K is barely enough to scratch the surface. Turning these places around is not just about money – but it sure helps and a BID will give us nearly a £100K every year rather just for one year. And at the same time powerfully engage businesses… and set up a collective purchasing scheme that will save independent businesses 2x what they put into the BID.
I do agree they’re not that innovative – but they’re about the best bet many centres have and should be much more widespread. Bristol currently has two – Canadian cities have up to 70 in each! (Toronto) – perhaps that’s part of the reason they figure so strongly on lists such as The World’s Most Liveable Cities (The Economist) and the UK doesn’t.

Fiona
Fiona
11 years ago

Are you one of the consultants that Bristol Council spent £15,510 on Keren?

Keren
Keren
11 years ago

The Portas Pilot brief also states: “Every high street is unique and will have different issues and priorities so we do not want to specify what ideas they want to explore or take forward. Nor do we want to limit pilots to testing proposals in the Portas Review. Each pilot will be free to determine its own priorities.”

The Portas review is strongly in favour of BIDs, it states: “A survey last year found that BIDs across the country had the capacity to generate total investment of around £66 million a year for regeneration and business development. This is testament to the commitment of businesses to invest in their local areas. … (BIDs) offer a credible financial model that breeds and engenders a feeling of trust among retailers to promote investment in areas.” Recommendations 2 and 3 from Portas describe empowering and strengthening BIDs, so the Bedminster activity fits well with the Portas brief.

A ‘wide range of local partners’ means diversity of partners not numbers, otherwise it would say a large number of local partners. Bedminster has three major retail streets and lots of other businesses dotted about. Two of the streets already had traders groups brought about by the GBCP (the lead partner which involves a wide range of local partners). These two groups have taken a lot of voluntary time and effort to bring about over the past few years. The third retail street and other businesses needed bringing into the fold create a strong and inclusive BID. Having a paid position enabled the Town Team to focus sharply on bringing all businesses into the loop, whilst also co-ordinating the delivery of the innovative and experimental activities I’ve mentioned above (these are just some of the activities, more can been seen at http://www.bedminstertowmteam.org ). Bringing those businesses into the loop gave them the opportunity to benefit from and take part in the activities being delivered.

As a Portas Pilot you can come up with experimental and innovative ideas and do them for a year while you’ve got funding, then stop when the money runs out. Or you can do experimental and innovative things for a year whilst using them to create a tried and tested self-financing structure that allows you to continue to innovate and repeat those activities proven to work. What you choose to do depends on whether you have a short or long -term vision for your high streets. If something is tried, tested and found to be successful, then why not do it when given the opportunity? No one criticises pilots using pop-up shops, but they’re not new or innovative these days.

The Bedminster Town Team aims to “save our high streets and re-structure the economy of Bedminster for the 21st Century”: hence a model that has used short-term activity to achieve long-term goals.

Keren
Keren
11 years ago

No Fiona, I’m not a paid consultant and I’m not involved with the Bedminster Town Team. I just felt that what they are doing is very different to what’s been portrayed in the press, so I thought I’d say so.

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