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Localities battle for ‘Portas pilot’ kudos 

‘Hundreds if not thousands’ of towns are expected to apply for share of £1m.

Hundreds of towns and cities including Hull, Darwen, Buntingford and Warrington are likely to go head-to-head in an effort to become one of the 12 picked as Mary Portas’s pilots.

The areas will compete for a share of the £1m set aside by ministers to help ailing areas implement changes, turn around their high streets and become blueprints for the recommendations in the Portas Review.

A source told Drapers the Government expects “hundreds if not thousands” of applications, following last weekend’s announcement.

Those expected to submit applications include Hull, Darwen and Rawtenstall in Lancashire, Rochdale in Greater Manchester, Buntingford in Hertfordshire, Warrington in Cheshire, Lancing in West Sussex and Dudley, West Midlands.

Councillor Mike Hannon, deputy leader of Warrington council, hoped a revamp of the town last year with a “lick of paint”, using a slogan, ‘It’s all going on in Warrington’, would not affect the bid.

He added: “We’ve still got a long way to go. We want to put ourselves down as an example of what we have achieved and go on to achieve more.”

Of the £1m fund available for the pilot towns, he said: “I think if it was £12m, £1m for each town, it would never be enough. It’s always going to be spread quite thinly.”

The British Retail Consortium’s director of business Tom Ironside said it was great to see action already being taken to make some of Portas’s recommendations a reality. He added: “Town centres need to be actively managed and government is right to recognise investment is often needed, although £1m will not go far.”

However, Paul Turner-Mitchell, director of young fashion indie 25 Ten Boutique in Rochdale, which is preparing a bid, said while the money available to the pilot towns was a “pittance”, the kudos of being a Portas pilot town was important.

“Having Portas coming into your town and advising on the future of your high street is something that money can’t buy and puts your town into the spotlight for the right reasons. All of this is far more important than the monetary value put on the amount which you will get,” he said.

Creativity would be key to making the best use of the £85,000 that each high street would get, he added. “There are things you could do with it, especially when used innovatively,” he said.

Dan Thompson, founder of regeneration organisation Empty Shop Networks, which was referenced in the Portas Review, said it was vital that the proposals for the revival of high streets be devised by local people. Thompson has worked on the regeneration of both Brixton and Tooting markets, bringing together market trading, food propositions and a programme of activity by theatre group Brick Box via the Empty Shops Network.

He said: “All too often it gets left to the experts, consultants or advisers, who try to apply solutions from other places. It just doesn’t work. There’s no blueprint or off-the-shelf solution to these things.”

Local government minister Grant Shapps and Portas said bids needed to show commitment to the “town team” approach – involving key players from the community – a good geographical spread and mix as well as potential for improvement. The closing date for entries is March 30.

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