Cathy, Professor of Shops

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Today saw the Queen of Shop’s review of Britain’s high streets.  Mary Portas’ brief from David Cameron was “to create vibrant and diverse town centres and bring back the bustle to our high streets”.  This call for Britain’s towns to be ‘vital and viable’ is nothing new, in fact this commitment has been incorporated into various strands of national policy for at least 15 years.   

So why is the future for towns looking so bleak?  And what can the Queen of Shops do, that three successive governments have said they’d do and haven’t?       

Mary says that her report is not about pointing the finger of blame but in order to solve problems, you have to fully understand them.  The factors that drive town centre decline are complicated, interlinked, interdisciplinary and paradoxical.  As Mary points out  “(w)hen I started my work on the review, I ploughed through a huge pile of previous reports about high streets and town centres and found so many good ideas which have simply sat on the shelf. Pretty soon I realised why. What I discovered is the complexity and diversity of the problems faced by high streets.   And I’ve learnt just how much of a complex web of interests and stakeholders are involved, many of whom have simply failed to collaborate or compromise”.  

Town centre decline is ‘a messy problem’, it doesn’t fit neatly into one government department; one of the reasons why the Prime Minister chose to ask a celebrity consultant to conduct a review rather than his own civil servants.  Mary makes a lot of sensible recommendations, she doesn’t ask why the majority of her recommendations have already been made and in some instances, put into practice, but have still not worked.

“It’s obvious, it’s all wrong and anyway they said it years ago”.   Most of the on-line comments about her recommendations fit this paraphrase coined by the respected economic geographer Paul Krugman, commenting on how his economic geography and city development work was received by peer reviewers.  Nevertheless, these comments raise interesting questions. If a solution is obvious and ‘old hat’, then what has stopped it being put into practice?  Likewise, if something is ‘all wrong’ then why is that? And is the proposal at one end of a ‘solution continuum’, with its antithesis by the default of logic,  ‘all right’?

Although there are 28 recommendations, they fall into six main categories:  getting town centres running like businesses, getting the basics right to allow business to flourish, levelling the playing field, defining landlords roles and responsibilities, giving communities a greater say and re-imagining our high streets.

They are a mixture of top-down and bottom-up solutions that can be summed up in one recommendation.  Change needs to be locally driven within a supportive policy framework.

But three successive governments have known this already – and backed a commitment to ‘vital and viable’ town centres.  We know many towns are failing, especially those that are near cities and coastal towns, where retail vacancy rates run at nearly 30%.  Even the ones that are ‘viable’ or, in other words, are economically successful, are not vital in the same way they were. Research by the New Economics Foundation identify 41% of towns and cities as ‘clone towns’ i.e. more than half their shops are chains.  It’s hardly surprising that people are not using their town centre if it is only offering them an inconvenient ‘copy’ of what’s available in other more accessible areas such as out-of-town superstores or larger cities, that have good public transport links.

One of Mary’s main recommendations is to create ‘town teams’ to take a more direct role in the day-to-day running of a town and also create a vision and long-term plan for the place’s future.  There are already, I would estimate, 1,000 or so places that have such a partnership.  It might not be formal town centre management or a Business Improvement District, but the principle’s the same:  A partnership of local stakeholders, made up of businesses, the council and local residents.  Town centre management has been in place in the UK for nearly 25 years but it hasn’t been properly supported.  We know it’s a good idea but how do we actually encourage and facilitate it? The Portas Review does not address this.

Mary also talks about communities having more say, again an issue highlighted in recent government reforms such as the Localism Bill.  Traditionally it has been elected council members and their officers responsible for places.  The very fact that so many places have lost their way, illustrates Mary’s comment that these areas have been mismanaged and ignored for too long.  But in my experience it is hard to challenge the status quo, unless the existing governance structures are open to such change.  People responsible for places need to have the right skills and knowledge – it is a really important job so they need to be competent.  If they need some training and support, this needs to be available and if they are not up to the job, they shouldn’t do it.  Again, whilst Mary calls for professional and inclusive place management, she doesn’t say how this will happen.  

Her other main and very important recommendation is to level the playing field.  In particular recommendation 14 states “Make explicit a presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework”.  This will be interesting as this gets to the heart of the issue; will a government introducing planning reforms to simplify decision-making by getting rid of such guidance and statements be prepared to introduce this intervention?  Local action is crucial, as high streets won’t fix themselves, but this effort has to be within a supportive planning policy framework.  So if the Government really wants to put ‘town centres first’ then by default, it means other types of development coming last.

Town centres are more than just shopping destinations.  They have been the heart of the community, in economic, social and political terms.  Of course, if a centre doesn’t have a population to serve anymore, then this decline should be managed.  But for those towns and cities that still have a catchment then global trends, such as increasing transport costs, an ageing population and, ultimately, global warming, means that politicians should be doing what they can today to ‘future-proof’ our towns and cities.  They offer a concentration of services with transport links and a ready-made ‘brand’ (i.e. the town or city’s name).  In the long run, it is so much cheaper to not reinvent the wheel.

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