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Reviews prove there’s no quick fix for high street conundrum

About 30 years ago I was editing a menswear trade mag called MAB News. One of my contributors was a young financial journalist called Robert Peston, who worked at Investors Chronicle.

Shortly after, the affable Peston moved to The Independent, then the Financial Times and nowadays he is a familiar face and voice as BBC News’s business editor.

I was pleased to see the knowledgeable Mr P fronting Robert Peston Goes Shopping, a three-part series on post-war retailing in Britain. The entertaining and informative first edition was aired last Monday on BBC2. No doubt Peston’s persuasive ways pulled in the big retailing names past and present on show, including Rick Greenbury of Marks & Spencer, Stanley Kalms of Dixons, Lord Sainsbury, George Davies and - a coup indeed - the reclusive Bernard Lewis, creator of Lewis Separates, Chelsea Girl and River Island. Later programmes will feature Sir Philip Green, Sir Stuart Rose and Sir Terry Leahy.

Was it a coincidence that the programme was shown at the start of a week which saw Mary Portas in front of a parliamentary committee answering questions about her review of the high street, and then the launch of the rival review by Bill Grimsey, one-time boss of the Focus DIY chain? We cover both events on our news pages. It would not serve much purpose going over the saga of the Portas report, but I thought it was an astonishing decision for the Government to ask a PR and TV presenter to undertake such a colossal task. Why didn’t they ask an expert like Bernard Lewis, who simultaneously built a retailing empire and an extensive property business? His insights would have been far more pertinent.

To give Portas her due, the finished product was better than I expected, although much was common sense and wishful thinking, but I had at the time a strong feeling that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to get the high street problem off the Government’s desk. The fact Portas has not had a reply to a letter she sent to local government minister Eric Pickles six months ago and has received just one letter from David Cameron describing the high street as “one of his top priorities” (ho, ho) neatly encapsulates the problem.

Grimsey’s review is much more cleverly woven into the political process. It was due to be launched at the House of Commons on Wednesday by Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, who is one of Portas’s most stringent critics. On Radio 4 on Monday morning Grimsey was winning me over with some of his ideas until he introduced the
idea of a levy on big retailers to fund a new structure to oversee the remodelling of the high street. Oh dear, I thought.

Grimsey has now admitted that he does not expect many companies to agree to this.

The rest of his 31 recommendations include some more common sense stuff and some fanciful digital-based vision of the future that foresees consumers shopping via holograms and retailers adjusting prices to suit the shoppers’ moods. Grimsey’s report suggests that planning for the high street should look 20 years ahead. While that might be desirable, is it in any way practicable? You’d be doing well to predict three years ahead. Surely nimble reaction to change is what’s needed.

I made a call for a minister of retailing - another Grimsey idea -about 10 years ago, but it seems even less likely now than it did then. While reports such as these two are helpful in highlighting the dire problems in the retail network, they offer no real workable solution. It could be that the problem is just too big to find big answers to. Lots of small things making lots of small improvements may be the best we can hope for.

On a lighter note, one of the best lines in Robert Peston Goes Shopping came from Next founder George Davies, that success story of the Thatcher era, who recalled that the grocer’s daughter from Grantham “thought that if you could run a shop, you could run a country”. If only it were that simple.

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