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Drapers Debate: How do you solve a problem like Mary (Portas)?

Just as Mary Portas returns to our screens as the self-styled saviour of our decaying town centres, yet another wave of mainly negative publicity follows in her wake. Is she still needed to boost the high street? Drapers Debates…

NO - Caroline Parry

Allegations have emerged that the original Portas Pilot towns may have been picked for their “TV-worthiness” rather than their Town Team bids; suggestions that towns that agreed to be filmed got more support than those that preferred not to, and, over in Margate, the closure of a store that the founder claims was opened early to suit filming schedules.

Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests have found that very little of the £100,000 funding offered to the winning towns – just 12% of towns from the first selection have spent any of their grants and just 13% of the second round of 15 towns.

There is no doubt that Portas has done much to raise awareness of the desperate need to revitalise our town centres but allegations that it is “publicity ahead of public policy” are damaging the credibility of this government scheme and the plight of the towns involved.

Portas, along with her ever-present film crews, are a distraction, looking for stories that will play out well on TV rather than really helping these towns develop workable long-term plans that really help to regenerate them.

Last week’s sad news that veteran premium indie Coggles has gone into administration highlights once again the plight of the independent retail sector. In previous years, Coggles has been a much lauded success story but as it has tried to move with the times, more and more investment has been needed to keep pace with today’s changing consumer behaviour. A double dip recession has ensured that has possibility has all but dried up.

Against that backdrop, Town Teams should be queuing up to bite the government’s hand off for funding and trying their best to make the most of every pound they get, without the fear of Portas marching into town and demanding that schedules change to suit filming, or that money will be withdrawn if towns don’t agree to be featured.

Portas’ work here is done. It is time she stepped aside and found new material for her TV shows so the towns can be left alone to get on. If she doesn’t support – both public and financial  - may dissolve and this important opportunity could be lost forever.

YES - Catherine Neilan

Let’s face it - without Mary Portas, the British public would be far less aware of the decline of the high street.

She has acted as a lightning conductor by attracting attention to the very real problems that retailers up and down the country face. The fact she comes with a production crew in tow is a good thing as it brings those problems into the homes of people who otherwise might pay little notice to the rising vacancy rates.

Earlier this month we heard from one brand who has bought a factory in Kent after being inspired by Portas’ Kinky Knickers and her work for local communities has spawned similar me-too projects, where people get actively involved in shaking up their retail hub and turn it into an area that people actually want to shop in.

Portas can be brusque, she might say things that people disagree with and she is a person with a single view on how things should be done. You may not agree with how she does it, but she has created a focus on the issues that need to be addressed and if she stepped away now it would, like so many other government initiatives, wither and die.

The problem here really is the government’s failure to address some of the fundamental issues - busines rates, for example - many of which Portas highlighted in her review and went ignored by Whitehall. This is where change must happen and Portas can be that instrument of change.

She is best placed to use her profile to continue applying pressure on the country’s decision makers to look at these concerns once again. Town teams may not like the camera crews in their faces, but neither do ministers who are being accused of failure.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Much like our favourite mockney chef Jamie Oliver, Mary appears to have hit the wall when it comes to progress. There is no doubt they both have highlighted the respective plights of school dinners and the Great British High Street (TM), but wider market forces, fear of the new and reluctance to spend the money needed to change the stagnating status quo tend to prevail.

    Unfortunately what seemed like a good PR story for Portas and the powers that be has caught a snag. But a PR story was all it ever was going to amount to - if we're being realistic, £100k isn't going to touch the sides in many of the most depressed retail areas.

    Ian Wright
    Fashion Director
    Drapers

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  • The High Street in all but the biggest cities has little future and there is nothing Portas and a derisory £100K can do about it.

    What next, Bring back Mister Byrite and Lord John?

    Move with the times!!!!

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  • The campaign has been the focus of national news since its launch, and has shone a light on the Great British High Street, and its ability to make people really care about their local high street has been fantastic.

    The face of our high street is changing – and although the Portas Pilots may not have made a huge impact over the past 12 months in terms of monetary spend, they have made an impact in terms of media attention, and in turn have hopefully encouraged retailers to do as much as they can to stand out in the current market.

    Her profile is the only way the government will start to pay attention to the key issues such as business rates, which are currently being ignored – to lose her would be to potentially lose all the progress that has been made and potentially lose support from businesses who would like to be involved with the campaign.

    Debra Jamieson,
    Sales and Marketing Director at UK Point of Sale

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  • She won't win on this one though, sad as I am a MP fan. That Liskeard shoe shop was dreadful, I mean, how do they think they can compete with a store laid out like that? I haven't seen shops like that since the 70's. The exterior was stunning though.
    The veg bloke was just ticking over and lazy + the fish lady seemed to have a wholesale business as her main thing with the shop as an add on.


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