Mary Portas is fiery, controversial and determined. Whether the Government’s response to her High Street Review reflects any of these characteristics is questionable.
Government has pledged £10m to a High Street Innovation Fund as its looks to shake-up and revitalise streets dominated by charity shops, heavy discount stores and empty premises.
The raft of initiatives includes a Business Improvement Districts loan scheme, a National Markets Day, volunteer drivenTown Teams and a further twelve Portas Pilots on top of the dozen it has already pledged to develop.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised this is only the beginning and that the response to the review complements the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) set out this week.
It is planning that may prove the crucial sticking point in the response being welcomed by the public. The Government stopped short of accepting Portas’ recommendation for exceptional sign off of out-of-town developments by business secretary Eric Pickles.
Portas is displeased that the Government has rejected the proposal however to make the call alongside continued rhetoric about cutting red tape may have proved controversial.
Moreover, NPPF sets out the Government’s stance clearly – developers have to prove they can’t develop in town and on the edge-of-town first before receiving permission on out-of-town developments. It seems disingenuous to restrict types of trade that are doing well just to bolster other areas.
But there is plenty to be positive about.
In Youtube videos submitted by potential pilot towns, the depth of passion and energy to turnaround fortunes of high streets where trade has – on the whole – been scythed by supermarkets is remarkable.
From Addlestone to Altrincham, the same stories recur and innovative ways of drawing in footfall through dealing with dead space, such as art projects, are commonplace.
“It was like Mary was speaking to me personally with her review,” said Ally Watkins, a trader in St Austell in Cornwall where a town team is in place and the council are waiting with baited breath to see when they can kickstart a plan.
The bottom line remains that towns will receive ideas, funds and guidance to re-energise dilapidated areas.
The Love Your Local Market fortnight will complement existing National Association of British Market Authorities and National Market Traders Federation schemes which look to entice people into an often forgotten industry which encourages entrepreneurs.
The Government has also put a strong onus on appearance through a Love Where You Live campaign which will look to stamp out anti-social behaviour and graffiti which have deterred people from shopping locally. Clean, tidy and attractive towns year-round will undoubtedly draw people back in.
The response to the review also targets the “no-go zone” which occurs between shops closing and pubs beginning to get busy. Later opening hours, which may prove more attractive to those who work late, are being proposed however the Government has warned it will look to charge those who sell alcohol to fund extra policing costs.
This will come as an unwelcome tax to those already facing a hike in business rates next month. BRC director Tom Ironside has urged the Government to focus on the bottom line – “the cost of doing business on the high street”.
Ironside also believes local partnerships should be encouraged and powers over compulsory purchase orders and removing local bylaws delegated.
The sticking point for the public may remain car parking. The Government’s pledge to bring down the minimum penalty notice smacks of treatment rather than prevention, make charges lower and you will not find shoppers parking illegitimately.
The BRC claims that the response does not go far enough in encouraging shoppers and businesses on to the high street.
Mary Portas’ review and the Governments response will, and have, been dogged by those who either don’t use, or don’t believe in ever using again, their local high street.
The next year could be crucial in deciding whether those voices get louder or are lost under the noise of feet stamping back on to a revitalised, clean, vibrant and mixed use high street.