At last the Portas Review is here!
I must admit I had some reservations about her appointment. Using someone who demonstrated during “Queen of Frocks” a distinct lack of basic retailing skills made it seem that her appointment to head up the government’s High Streets review was like setting Jeremy Clarkson the challenge of presenting a plan for rebuilding the British car industry.
But throughout the review, Portas has bucked the trend on this kind of activity and maintained visibility throughout the process. OK, some of this may have been driven by ego, but she has gone out to a diverse set of towns to meet real people and not just the vested interests. She has come in for a lot of criticism from various groups who felt that they were missed off the list, but having met shoppers, small businesses and key figures like Richard Brasher, I believe she has probably collected a truly diverse set of views. The problem with Portas is that she doesn’t do herself any favours – the leak of the report appeared first in The Telegraph, a paper that she contributes to, for example. But enough about the person, what about the report?
Her cover note speaks in a tone that aligns with my beliefs – “High Streets must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again”. Too much of the debate has been around others doing stuff – this puts the emphasis on EVERYONE doing stuff. There are some really great ideas in there such as larger retailers mentoring smaller ones, Town Management Teams, disincentives for leaving units empty and an “affordable shops” quota.
Some of these disappoint in not going far enough. For example, major FMCG businesses have a massive potential role to play in upskilling small retailers, rather than just selling to them. A better framework to support this would be a massive winner, potentially with wholesalers taking more interesting in generating healthy indies. The empty units debate, as my Twitter followers will be aware, is a big bugbear of mine with percentages always used and no spotlight shone on an irresponsible increase in units. It was probably outside the remit of this investigation, but I’d still like to see policies supporting old units being converted to housing as part of new development plans. In Leeds, for example, when the new Trinity shopping centre opens in the town centre in 2013, it’s likely that a nearby street (Albion Street for those who know the area) will become largely vacant as current inhabitants such as Next move into the shiny new units.
Councils need to up their game, that’s very clear – one fear over Town Management Teams is that the same old bureaucrats will turn up rather than real retailers and marketers (my CV is attached!). The whole parking issue is a red herring though. Parking needs to be restricted for congestion and pollution reasons – would you really want to put more cars into crowded town centres like Bradford, Colchester and Chester? No, what is needed here are more shopper-focused public transport initiatives. Trams would be ideal, but expensive, so Park & Ride schemes need to be increased and tied into Town Management marketing.
Now the government is working on how to adopt the report, we can expect the lobbying to start in earnest. I had to switch the radio off on the day of the report as the various interest groups were all digging trenches and not embracing the spirit of the report. Mary Portas has produced a worthwhile and intelligent report – watch now the British disease as we turn it into some destructive. My fear is that the government, facing increasing popularity, will try and turn all the guns on the big retailers in the name of the High Street in a similar way to the Blair government’s “Rip-off Britain” campaigns. To do so would seal the fate of many High Streets.
I really hope I’m wrong.