Will the Portas Review help create living streets?

The Portas Review has helped give a focus to our high streets in the public eye. The review contains some good suggestions that would make a real impact, while Portas doesn’t shy away from confronting the government’s position, as when advocating a more explicit town centre first policy to be included in the National Planning Policy Framework. More broadly, as Julian Dobson pointed out yesterday, the report recognises the social value of high streets as meeting points and arenas for community activity, as well as their economic function.

But what makes a high street a successful place? One of Living Streets’ core principles is that streets are places as well as corridors for movement. That’s why, for example, our City of 20 campaign in London is calling for 20mph to be the default choice not only on residential streets, but also on major routes where we live, work and shop. Many high streets, such as Dagenham Heathway and Southwark’s Walworth Road, and as a more extreme example Oxford Street, cater primarily for pedestrians at key times of the day and week.

As the case studies in our professionals’ area show, more and more local authority engineers and designers are taking this on board. The best authorities assess the needs of different street users (with their active participation through approaches such as Community Street Audits) and try to strike a balance, recognising that making changes to a street to improve movement will inevitably affect the way the street performs as a place, and vice versa.

The Portas Review offers warm words on making town centres into quality places – yet the aspects dealing with movement threaten to undermine this positive picture. Its recommendation that town centres should provide more free car parking is rightly one of the most controversial in the report, which tellingly does not mention car traffic congestion at all – a major missing link from a report which seeks both to promote both pleasant and attractive environments in town centres and to make town centres more competitive.

Along with convenience and protection against bad weather, being able to avoid traffic congestion is potentially just as important as free car parking in drawing shoppers out of town. Apart from being undesirable on health, social, environmental and economic grounds, trying to compete with out of town centres on the ease of car-based access is simply unfeasible for town centres whose access roads are already working at full capacity.

Leaving aside Portas’s brief nod to the ‘many very sensible environmental arguments’ against unrestrained car use, is it really what people want? There is ample evidence to suggest that parking has a far less significant effect – and pedestrians a much greater one – on the health of local economies than local authorities and retailers often assume. It’s no coincidence that the best high streets and town centres in the UK and Europe tend to have a high quality pedestrian environment at their heart.

The high streets debate seems set to continue – rightly so – and Living Streets will be in the front line of it. But one thing is clear: if we want to see high streets reclaim their status as key places, we need a serious debate about how we manage the way in which people move to, from and around them.

Majeed Neky
Majeed Neky is policy and research coordinator at Living Streets, the national charity that stands up for pedestrians.


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Rupert Greenhalgh
Rupert Greenhalgh
12 years ago

Sorry Majeed, I have to disagree. The demand for free car parking is a huge factor in the attraction of out of town locations; and a huge gripe from local traders. Perhaps the issue should have been some form of congestion charge (car park fees) for out of town. My greater concern is that the removal of town centre parking charges is not at all a cost free option; and a lost revenue stream for councils which is then used on other local services.

12 years ago

Cheers Rupert – lost revenue stream from parking is definitely an issue that this could have brought up as well (and very relevant given the controversy in Westminster at the moment!)

Some media trailing of the Portas Review did suggest that she was going to recommend a charge or levy for out of town parking, which would definitely have been a more interesting recommendation from our point of view.

Part of my point here is that – given the limitations of town centres geographically – it’s simply unfeasible for them to try to compete on free car parking, and it would also undermine their ability to build on the unique selling points of town centres, when they’re done right, that Portas identified – namely their sociable and congenial environments.

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