Ex-Iceland and Focus DIY boss Bill Grimsey says he is putting together a more “radical” set of proposals for saving the UK high street than those put forward by Mary Portas in her 2011 review. We examine the two arguments.
To be fair to Bill Grimsey, he hasn’t actually published a set of proposals for rescuing high streets, but he has given a strong indication of what he intends to do. Mary Portas argues that much of what he has said so far is very similar to her own recommendations. Grimsey has acknowledged that he will build on what she has already done, but take
a more “radical” approach. Here we compare the Queen of Shops’ 2011 Portas Review with what Grimsey told Drapers.
Portas said “Put in place a ‘Town Team’: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets.”
Grimsey said “Town teams are good things in that they have enthusiastic people behind them, but they have no guidelines to work to. One town had 200 members, all of whom had a vote - that won’t work. Our town centre commissions, as we will call them, will be properly structured and people on them will have a skill base that is properly defined. The methodology will help to produce a unique business plan for that town.”
Portas said “Establish a new ‘National Market Day’ where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business.”
Grimsey said “Let’s ditch this sentimental focus on shopping and consumption and start planning for a future that works for everybody.”
Portas said “Make it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason why not.”
Grimsey said “Saving town centres as a destination from a shopping point of view is not the right way to approach this.”
Portas said “Government should consider whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers.”
Grimsey said “If the rates system is not working, then let’s prove where it is not working and why. But we need to balance the books through making radical changes.”
Portas said “Local authorities should use their new discretionary powers to give business rate concessions to new local businesses.”
Grimsey said “Let’s not wait while things get worse - let’s get legislation to address it today.”
Portas said “Make business rates work for business by reviewing the use of the Retail Price Index with a view to changing the calculation to Consumer Price Index.”
Grimsey said “That’s going to make diddly squat difference.”
Portas said “Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table.”
Grimsey said “Parking has been identified as a problem but nothing has been done about it. I’m not going to give any statements today but it has to be quite radical - it can’t be free parking between 10 and four, because who is going to pay for it? In isolation, it won’t work.”
Portas said “Town teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe.”
Grimsey said “The future town will need a whole host of accommodation, it will need to be pedestrianised, it will need things like health centres, entertainment centres, cultural centres, leisure - things that have vibrancy about them. It should all be focused around the local economy, staying in the local community.”
Portas said “Address the restrictive aspects of the use class system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street.”
Grimsey said “You’ve got 40,000 empty shops, which is a tragic waste, and something needs to happen to them. But I’m not coming at this from a retailing perspective. If you only approach it from a retail point of view you will fail.”
Portas said “Government should include high street deregulation as part of their ongoing work on freeing up red tape.”
Grimsey said “Our proposals will most likely include some legislative changes.”
Portas said “Introduce secretary of state exceptional sign-off for all new out-of-town developments and require all large new developments to have an affordable shops quota.”
Grimsey said “The secretary of state has just slapped Mary in the face by allowing this new Tesco to be built on the seafront in Margate. There are acres of empty space in town and you’re completely bonkers if you think you’ll save those units now.”
Portas said “Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers.”
Grimsey said “Businesses need to learn from each other. If you look at the supermarkets, for example, they already have the equivalent of 1 million sq ft of space in virtual land. That’s something like 20 Tesco Extras online today.”
Portas said “Encourage a contract of care between landlords and their commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code and supporting the use of lease structures other than upward-only rent reviews, especially for small businesses.”
Grimsey said “We have to level the playing field for smaller retailers.”
Portas said “Explore further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant.”
Grimsey Did not comment on this, but he did say: “Whatever we propose will be commercial - it won’t cause a deficit. I will come up with something that does balance budgets.”
Portas said “Run a high-profile campaign to get people involved in neighbourhood plans.”
Grimsey said “You have to hand plaudits to Mary Portas for the profile she’s given to this if nothing else.”
Portas said “Developers should make a financial contribution to ensure that the local community has a strong voice in the planning system.”
Grimsey said “Macclesfield council has just approved a new shopping centre in the middle of the town. It will end up being an empty space anyway because the Trafford Centre is only 30 minutes away. The only reason they are doing it is because the council bought up land and the developer will buy it from them.”
Portas said “Run a number of High Street Pilots to test proof of concept.”
Grimsey said “The pilots have backfired on the Government. My review will hold up a mirror in front of an ugly man; if the ugly man doesn’t like what he sees there is nothing I can do about that.”
Conclusion Grimsey has until the autumn to finesse his plans, but as things stand there are already several differences emerging. One area Grimsey differs on is his long-term view - his review will take a 25 to 30-year approach, he says. Many areas - parking, rates, planning - are jointly identified as needing a solution. Grimsey admits he is “not confident” the Government will back his proposals where it hasn’t supported all of Portas’s, but his claims the proposals will balance the books are sure to grab the attention of decision-makers. He just needs to explain how…
/ Talking point /
Mary has done a huge amount to highlight the plight of the high street and Bill is helping to keep things in the public eye, but the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is. Until they do something, nothing will change.
- Luke Conod, managing director of young fashion indie Fit in Hereford
Mary Portas’s review was good, but she needs more help, she can’t do it all on her own. The Government needs to step up, because the main issue is the high vacancy rates on the high street, which deter many.
- Dave Conaghan, co-owner of young fashion indie Chocolate in Derry, Northern Ireland
Mary Portas has exposed a great issue: high streets are not plonked in the middle of town and indies are not there just for fun.
- Tony Smith, store manager of menswear indie Dartagnan in Chichester, West Sussex
With Portas I think part of it is genuine and part is self-promotion, but no matter what she tries to do people advocate change but then do not welcome it. Even if the Government throws a lot of money into high streets - which it isn’t - you still can’t force people to go there.
- Darren Hoggett, co-owner of indie J&B Menswear in Norwich
Mary Portas’s intentions are good but it is local councils that have to be more helpful. I don’t think a single voice needs to be heard, it needs to come from the Government.
- Nigel Binnie, director of menswear indie Northern Threads in South Shields, Tyne & Wear
Anything that leads to a positive change has to be welcomed. The trouble with Mary is that some people don’t take her seriously because they think it’s just publicity.
- Yvette Davies, owner of womenswear indie Thirty Three Boutique in Lymington, Hampshire