Mary Portas faced the Communities and Local Government select committee today and took the grilling with her characteristic confidence - but the weariness is starting to show.
It was always going to be a tough session for Mary Portas. Some 18 months after her review was published the high street is still struggling. Earlier today the Local Data Company and British Independent Retail Association published figures showing the number of indie retailers opening stores has halved from this time last year. Ahead of Bill Grimsey’s Review, to be published on Wednesday, the weekend papers were full of his prediction that 20,000 stores could close in the next year. Little sign of green shoots so far.
Portas has also not helped herself in some key areas, most notably in the handling of TV production of some the Portas Pilots. It was this issue that presented probably her most serious challenge today, but it was one that she managed well and came out looking perhaps better than she has previously.
Asked by one committee member whether she was “trying to influence government decision because it would make good TV”, Portas was adamant: “That was absolutely not the case”. Instead, she insisted the TV programme was designed to highlight the issue, saying it was “the right thing to do”. “I couldn’t go in making over shops while Rome was burning around me,” she added.
But this was not the only challenge she faced, and it’s fair to say Portas was grilled considerably on some areas, including her involvement in the process after the initial review had been put together. With characteristic confidence, bordering on abruptness, she highlighted how it was her own “free time” and that she was not being paid for it.
She also acknowledged her limited understanding of politics, saying she wished “someone had held my hand when navigating politics because it’s a bit tough”. But Portas was more resilient when her ongoing war of words with the ex-Iceland, Focus DIY and Wickes boss Grimsey, noting that she “must have done something to him in a former life”, and even getting a little dig in about the liquidation of his previous interests.
That’s not to say she didn’t tackle the issues she was there to. Insisting that a year is not enough time to expect a turnaround, Portas reiterated her call for business rates to be tackled, parking to be looked at and a way to encourage landlords to think more long-term about their tenants.
She also pushed for incentives to be given to those businesses that plump for town centre locations and “penalties” for those who go outside.
And although she was diplomatic, it was clear that the lack of support from the government, and lack of joined up thinking between departments, weighed heavy on her. Asked if she believed prime minister David Cameron when he wrote to her saying it was one of his top priorities, she at first demurred from answering the question before eventually conceding she did not.
Her contact with the Communities and Local Government secretary of state Eric Pickles also appears limited – she wrote to him six months ago and he never replied, she said. Housing and high streets minister Mark Prisk is in more regular contact, but it’s easy to understand why she doesn’t believe she has the support of the government when Pickles and Cameron fail to engage properly.
Despite her confidence and enthusiasm, both of which have been key in getting Portas to this point, it was clear that she has been bruised by the experience. One of her quotes, complaining about the process, was read back to her and she was asked if she thought the whole thing had been a waste of time.
“No I don’t think it was a waste of time, I don’t regret doing it,” she said, insisting her comments had been the words of someone who was “weary”. With the Grimsey Review out in two days, she might well expect to feel worse over the coming weeks.
But she ended on a far more positive note, paraphrasing Martin Luther King to say that it was her “dream” that the high streets would survive.
“I think people will talk about going to town rather than going shopping,” she said. Teenagers would consume fashion differently to now “upcycling or trading clothes” and food and leisure will be part of the mix. “Co-created businesses that we wouldn’t have expected” will also come to the fore to “create new retail destinations.”
“That’s my dream and I think it can be achieved - but it will require support and guidance,” she said.