So, where were you on the day the high street was saved?
With just the merest hint of irony, I was in a shopping centre for much of the day. But a shopping centre with fully integrated public transport links and a degree of wow factor as shopping centres go – Westfield in Stratford next to the Olympic Park. Some interesting shops and approaches from established retailers and it felt busy. But did it feel like a place? Could I tell it apart from any other modern shopping centre? Of course not.
And that’s rather the point about high streets – they are meant to be about somewhere. They are local, of a place and for people, as opposed to business. But along the way we’ve lost that, and that’s not just the fault of the big retailers.
So, cue Mary Portas.
Now, I have not read the full report, nor the supporting document on research into understanding high street performance – too much examination marking if you’re interested – but I intend to in the coming days. What I have read is the list of recommendations and some of the news coverage (in between buying Christmas presents on my smart phone – so much more convenient than actually trying to get to a shop or high street).
For me, the recommendations are really quite contrary. The bad guys are too easy to spot – local councils, landlords, banks, town centre managers and management . The good guys seem to be BIDS and market traders. Free up some of the red tape, consider some rates and rent stuff, give everyone free car parking, throw a national market day party and have some operational town teams and that’s the high street saved. Hardly.
Towns need people to want to go to them or want to live in them. It is not just retailing that’s been decentralised – look at cinemas, restaurants, football stadiums, offices, hotels, government offices and so on. We need to bring back lots of uses and excitement into town centres and high streets. Yes, we do need to free up space use, sort out some better rates and rental stuff to aid diversity and start-ups and make it easier and cheaper for consumers and organisations, businesses and shops to meet up in a place with meaning and have an exchange. The Portas Review is right on all this, but didn’t we know this before?
A lot of the recommendations are wishes not actions and don’t answer the “how” questions. Maybe there’s more meat in the full report, so I reserve full judgement, but as they stand these recommendations barely make it as sticking plasters. But it’s a start and we need high streets and town centres on the national agenda, and the report has done that.
A more considered view will follow, but I somehow doubt we’ve saved the high street today (and as she rightly says, however tough it may be, some are – and should be – beyond saving), with or without some Minister getting town centres to add to their portfolio.
But Mary knows David, and he needs the oxygen of some good news and a sense of things happening. Celebrity culture provides the clout and dynamism that all the previous reports (academics and others – guilty as charged) have failed to deliver. So we’ll get the Towns Minister and some high street pilots and/or high street enterprise zones (get the councils out of the way seems to be flavour of the month, but it is not as simple as that). But please let’s hope the parking league table never sees the light of day.
The Portas Review was about England, but that doesn’t mean that Scotland can be complacent about our high streets. We have many of the same problems and need to find our own Scottish solutions. The debate is as alive here as it is down south. We were ahead of the game with the Town Centre Regeneration Fund – let’s hope we’re not now falling behind.