Independent retailers in “Portas Pilot” towns have said the failed scheme had “its own agenda” and “little focus on retail”.
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Five years after 12 towns were awarded a share of a £1.2m fund and access to celebrity retail guru Mary Portas to improve trade on their high streets, research by the Local Data Company commissioned by the BBC found the towns had lost 17% of their shops.
Marie Spence, owner of womenswear independent Isn’t She Lovely in Brigg, North Lincolnshire, said she had to close one of her two shops because Market Rasen, one for the areas to receive funding, was a “ghost town”.
“I opened my shop up shortly after the scheme, and I didn’t get help or funding. I managed for a couple of years, but thanks to business rates and other factors, we were one of the first fashion retailers to close in Market Rasen. After that, shops there began closing once every few weeks.
“It was undoubtedly more of a publicity stunt, and had nothing to do with shops. I don’t know what the money went towards, and nothing seemed to get done as a result.”
Maria Telford, owner of Eternal Envy in Stockport, felt similarly: “There was very little focus on retail, and very little money given to retail. Not enough encouragement or guidance was given to existing retailers, either.
“Stockport has degenerated ever since, and most new businesses that were springing up at the beginning of the pilot are no longer there.”
Despite the money being “badly used” in the opinion of Sandra Gilbride, owner of Bittersweet Clothing in Liskeard, Cornwall, says the town has thrived: “The money was used on things that didn’t help the high street, such as websites and a dire food festival. Mary Portas herself was wonderful. She made us buck up our ideas.
“Liskeard is pretty full up, and the picture isn’t as dire as what the headlines are painting. But it’s not easy being on the high street at the moment – far from it.”
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said:
”High streets and town centres are at the heart of our local and regional economies - creating jobs, nurturing small businesses and injecting billions of pounds into our economy.
“Following the Portas Review, the previous government launched the ‘Portas Pilots’ and provided £3.35m to 335 high streets via Town Teams. With local teams creating projects to meet their own needs, we saw a range of successes including two ‘Portas Pilots’, Rotherham and Roman Road, Tower Hamlets, London, reaching the finals of the 2015 Great British High Street Awards, a 20% increase in trade in Dartford and thriving pop up shops in Braintree.
“The focus now is sharing the learning from successful areas and making sure we support local people in realising the long-term potential of their high streets and town centres.”