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Government lobbied over Mary Portas pilot scheme

Evidence has emerged to suggest the Government picked some of the towns for its Portas Pilot scheme based on recommendations by Mary Portas and the production company behind the TV show.

Production company Optomen lobbied Government officials to pick towns that would be popular with TV audiences for the series Mary: Queen of Shops, which airs tonight on Channel 4 with the Government now being accused of putting publicity before public policy.

Towns picked to be Portas Pilots received £100,000 of public money as well as advice from Portas’ team on how to transform their high street.

In one example, the production crew recommended Roman Road in east London should receive tax payers’ money because “social history is currently really popular on television”, the Guardian has reported.

When it launched, the Government’s high-profile policy was being run by then local government minister Grant Shapps, who is now the chairman of the Conservative Party.

In February last year, Shapps wrote to Portas saying there would have to be “clear blue water between the selection of the pilots and the television show. This will be best achieved by me selecting the pilots, with [Portas’] Yellow Door and [TV production company] Optomen having no involvement.”

However, when the list of 12 Portas pilots was revealed by the government from 371 entries in May last year, it included three of Yellow Door’s favoured high streets: Croydon, Market Rasen and Stockport.

A spokesperson for Portas denied that the TV star and retail expert had sought to influence the Government’s selection process, the Guardian reported. Channel 4 and Optomen also strongly deny any attempt to influence the process.

There has also been uncertainty over whether the Portas towns that agreed to be filmed were getting more attention than those that did not.

In June civil servants emailed to ask if Portas’ agency “could clarify… what additional support those who agree to filming will get”. 

In Margate, which features in the second episode of the Channel 4 series, the original bid-winning team resigned after some members claimed Portas had threatened to withdraw investment unless they agreed to filming.

Labour shadow local government minister Roberta Blackman-Woods claimed the emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show the Government was more interested in “publicity than public policy”.

A spokesperson for Mary Portas said: “Any suggestion that Mary was involved in influencing the Government’s selection of Portas pilot towns is categorically untrue.

“Early correspondence between Yellow Door and the Government simply reflected a former employee’s enthusiastic response to the hundreds of inspirational video pilot applications. The Government clarified protocol and there was no influence by Yellowdoor on the selection of the Portas pilot towns whatsoever.”

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “We have always been completely clear that the 27 Portas pilots were selected for the leadership, commitment and innovation shown in their application, that Mary Portas had absolutely no role in choosing the towns, and that their status as Portas pilots was in no way dependent on their participation in any show.”

Channel 4 said: “The final decision on selecting Portas pilot towns always rested with the Government and at no point did Channel 4 make any attempt to influence that decision or Government policy. We strongly dispute that anything was constructed.”

A spokesperson for Optomen said: “[We] had no influence over or involvement in the selection of the Portas pilot towns, which was solely a decision for the Government. No sweeteners or financial inducements were offered or made by Optomen to the towns to encourage their participation in the programme.”

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