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Are the Portas Pilots dead in the water?

We’ve yet to see the results of the first wave of Portas Pilots, but if today’s report from the Local Data Company is anything to go by, we’re unlikely to see much in the way of impact.

The report – ominously titled ‘Too Many Shops’ – reveals a worsening picture for Britain’s retail industry, with yet another increase in the number of shops lying vacant. But far more worrying is the longer-term analysis offered by the research company and the implicit digs at the burgeoning government initiative spearheaded by the Queen of Shops herself.

Even if the government had found a way to meet the recommendations she put forward, it would be a tall order, but as Drapers noted at the time, the watered-down response was seriously lacking.

Now the LDC and British Property Federation are warning that the vast majority of factors creating our tumbleweed towns are structural – mainly an increase in retail space available combined with underlying economic issues.

This means the relatively small amount of cash being put forward by the government to fix problem areas like Margate – the most vacant town of the bunch, with 36.5% of its shops lying empty – is not enough to do anything more than “help at the margins”.

This point was also picked up by Liz Peace of the British Property Federation, obliquely describing it as “tinkering around the edges”. And it is a view shared by many a retailer – not one person I have spoken to within the industry has faith in the pilots, even if they are fans of Mary herself.

In the past few weeks, several larger high street names have admitted on the QT that if they could do it again they would have far fewer stores, avoiding the tertiary and secondary towns entirely, and reducing their footprints in some of the larger centres. Yesterday Kurt Geiger became the latest in a long line of retailers and brands planning a retrenchment: Drapers hears almost on a weekly basis of businesses closing their doors or downsizing as finances start to bite.

As always London remains immune from the blight, bolstered by the growing trade from the mega rich (and even medium-rich) tourists. But this blinds the policy makers, who don’t realise the time bomb their lack of action is creating outside of the capital.

When your largest overhead is property, it’s no surprise that pulling the plug becomes an increasingly attractive option as profitability nose dives. Ecommerce and clever ways of working within space constraints – such as Click and Collect stores – are the most cost-effective routes to market now.  

If LDC’s analysis is to be believed, the high street is set for a radical change – we may well end up with fewer high streets as chains and multiples retract from less desirable centres. It’s possible that with well-thought out policy, greater dialogue between interested parties and a miraculous economic turnaround, some may be saved. But no amount of “tinkering around the edges” will be able to alter it.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I disagree absolutely. One of the biggest benefits from this process has been the impetus for an area to think as a unit, with the Portas Pilot money simply providing facilitation for that.

    In Sydenham (in partnership with Kirkdale and Forest Hill), the biggest block regarding the empty shops is proving to be overpriced rents and an unwillingness to consider shorter leases or a different way of working. On the other hand, we have a terrific new website (www, and many new retail initiatives brewing because of this new-found 'Team' attitude.

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