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the fear of Portas marching into town and demanding that schedules change to suit filming, or that money will be withdrawn if towns don’t agree to be featured.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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