Portas: Three Years On

Today we’ve seen another contribution to the high streets debate from Mary Portas. Those who feel high streets are important can thank Mary – and also David Cameron who commissioned her – for establishing a debate about high streets in the national psyche. She published her report way back in December 2011, and since then it’s been praised and derided in almost equal measure. For the record, ACS welcomed her report when it came out, and we think that much of the criticism of it has been poorly targeted.

Since her report, we’ve seen a Future High Streets Forum established, and I’m proud to sit on this group alongside Mary, the Minister Brandon Lewis, Councillors, and a host of high street retailers large and small and including pub and leisure operators.

Now Mary is back in the media on high streets, and it’s great to see her pick up on two issues that are close to our hearts. Firstly, she talks about the move towards local shopping, and the way that independent retailers are fighting back. Like many other commentators, Mary has identified that people want the convenience of using local stores, and also that they want service and a differentiated product offer. Let’s not kid ourselves – competing with the big boys is tough for an independent, but lifestyle trends are in favour of those who invest in a high quality environment, and who genuinely know and understand their customers.

There is also a key policy contribution in Mary’s “think piece” – a call for better implementation of the town centre first planning policy. This was in her original report, when she made the infinitely sensible recommendation that the Secretary of State should call in for review all out of town planning approvals. She foresaw that retailers would look to cheaper, simpler out of town sites rather than investing in town centres, and understood that if retailers weren’t given a strong clear town centre first message, more out of town shopping would open up and damage town centres.

And she was right. Since the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework came into force, 76% of developments have taken place out of town – and I’m pleased that Mary quoted this ACS research (based on a huge sample of half of local authorities in England) in her latest paper. The point here isn’t just that local shops don’t like big supermarkets opening. If the balance of development takes place out of town, that damages everyone in the high street, and yes, sometimes town centre first means a new tough competitor on the doorstep of one of our members. Mary’s remit was for high streets, and she was and is right to see town centre first planning as a huge part of the policy framework for achieving this.

I dare say that Mary’s latest report will be pilloried by those who find her to be a convenient target for negativity about high streets. My advice: look at the short and very readable piece she has written here and make up your own mind.

This entry was posted by Victoria on Fri, 30/05/2014 - 14:11