The government was forced to defend its investment in the Portas Pilots after it emerged this week that more shops have closed than opened in the first 12 towns to receive funding under the scheme.
It gave the towns £100,000 each in 2012, but research commissioned by BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme from the Local Data Company has found that in the two years since there has been a net closure of 53 stores.
Nine of the towns still have vacancy rates above the national average of 13.4%, with Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees and Dartford worst affected.
Retailers in two of the towns that received funding told Drapers little had changed. Dom O’Riley, manager of gothic clothing store Time Bomb in Croydon, said: “Our trade is very up and down. We have had to branch out and find other ways of keeping ourselves in business, becoming a piercing and tattoo parlour as well as a fashion retailer. I’ve seen many shops shut down in Croydon recently.”
Paul Breuer, co-owner of vintage and retro clothing retailer Breuer & Dawson in Margate, Kent, said: “The Portas scheme was short-lived and involved an indoor beach and Chas [from Chas and Dave] playing a piano, which isn’t going to encourage long-term customers.”
High streets minister Penny Mordaunt said: “The main aim of the [Portas Pilots] scheme has always been to harness the energy and enthusiasm of the local community and give them the freedom to try out their ideas. This is a long-term project.”
The pilots were the brainchild of retail expert Mary Portas.
David Wood, chief executive of Portas, her retail and fashion marketing agency, said vacancy rates were “not a useful way” of measuring the scheme’s success. “We could have filled those empty shops with charities or pound shops, but that wouldn’t have helped the high streets,” he pointed out.
He said £100,000 per town was “not very much”, adding: “You can’t expect miracles. We’ve been doing this for 18 months; high streets have been in decline for decades.”
Local councils should take more responsibility for supporting local businesses, he said. “What we have learned from the pilots so far is you need a committed council who will lend businesses money, consider introducing free parking and so on.”