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Government’s Portas response leaves questions unanswered

Caroline Nodder

Finally last week we heard back from the Government on the recommendations of the Portas Review of the high street that were published before Christmas.

Finally last week we heard back from the Government on the recommendations of the Portas Review of the high street that were published before Christmas.

While none of us believe there is a magic bullet that will bring consumers flooding back to the UK’s town centres overnight, I have to confess now to being ever so slightly underwhelmed by the strength of the response.

While it started with a personal message from Prime Minister David Cameron himself, aimed no doubt at showing the issue is close to his heart (falling as it does under the Big Society banner), the actual firm action plan that followed was somewhat vague for my liking.

The key issues raised by our readers when we surveyed them on the high street review were parking, rents and business rates. What stops a particular shop being viable for a good retailer is either lack of footfall, or excessive overheads, or a combination of the two.

While the Government response does reference these two problems, the suggested measures to help seem lightweight. Proposals to abolish the minimum penalty parking charge won’t address the underlying issue that there aren’t enough spaces to begin with in the centre of most towns, for example. And doubling the level of small business rate relief for two and a half years won’t address the fact that only a tiny number of businesses are eligible.

A National Market Day is a nice idea but is it really going to save the high street – and, again, without sufficient cheap parking will people actually attend?

I also take issue with the funding being suggested. The amounts in question – £1m here, £500,000 there – seem very small compared with the scale of the problem.

On the issue of rents, the Government says it supports Portas’s proposal for a code of best practice and is talking to landlords about discouraging upward-only rent reviews. But this is a voluntary code and as such has little hope of invoking wider rental reform.

Much of the rest of the response hinges on the implementation of Portas’s proposed Town Teams, with the original 12 Portas Pilots to be announced in May now being enlarged later in the year by another 12. But what power or indeed funding these teams will have remains unclear, as does how they will be monitored centrally and how the results of their plans can be measured.

The more cynical observers among us suggested when the Portas Review was announced that the Government had sought a celebrity like her as a PR exercise, with no real plan of action behind the move.

If so, one might conclude that the plan backfired as she has certainly put this issue firmly on the national agenda.

However, the response this week leaves me concerned that it might be a case of too little too late.

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