FOI on the High Street

I must have been one of the very first people to use the Freedom of Information Act, submitting my request to the Cabinet Office on the very first day possible. OK, it took me several years and a ruling from the Information Commissioner after appeal to get the information I wanted, but we got there in the end.

I was trying to track down details of a curious meeting between government and Wal-Mart, ahead of the latter bidding for Asda. This meeting was the subject of obfuscation, mis-leading information and denial – including to Parliament – and it is difficult to see why or what people felt they had to hide. The full story is told in a subsequent Environment and Planning A article “When Tony met Bobby” available from our depository.

I recall this as last week my interest was piqued by the use of the FOI Act by an independent retailer to find out how spending on the High Street Innovation Fund was going. This fund was set up as part of the response in England to the Portas Report.

The fund awarded money to 100 councils with the worst high streets in England. But in over a year it seems that less than 7% of the money has been spent and 47/72 responding councils had not spent a penny.

This follows earlier FOI requests by the same retailer, Paul Turner-Mitchell, which revealed that only 12% of the Portas Pilot Town money had been spent.

There are a number of points that can be made:

  • FOI requests like these are really valuable in shining lights in to places and holding official groups to account – this is good use of the legislation and should be more common
  • How can 28 councils, who received the money, get away with not meeting their legal duties to respond in full and in time? Should failure to comply cause a reduction or removal over their grant from the fund?

And in regard to the High Street spending itself:

  • At a time of great need how can this slow pace be justified? High Streets need attention and delaying spending is wrong at this time
  • Many of the projects though on which the money has been spent seem either to be cosmetic or replacement of spending that should be in place anyhow. They are trivial for trivial sums and projects – £165 for on a snow machine seems unlikely to me to “Save the High Street”
  • Thus, if there is money to spend don’t we have to target this to make it actually have an impact (and not spread it around) and/or make sure that it is spent appropriately and quickly – delay seems perverse in our current climate and trivial cosmetics seem a ludicrous misunderstanding of what is needed.

We need to think big and radically in terms of our high streets and town centres. Paul Turner-Mitchell and his FOI responses have illuminated just how far off the pace we are.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Government, High Streets, Mary Portas, Town Centres, Wal-Mart and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to FOI on the High Street

  1. Vicky says:

    How would I go about find out this information in Scotland? Who should be contacted, and what do you say? I’d like someone to explain the procedure…

  2. I think what the FOI requests have done particularly well is to unmask the lack of thinking at central government level about what the money was intended to achieve. I understand some of the councils that received money from the High Street Innovation Fund turned round and asked what they were supposed to do with it. As you point out, thinking is worth more than funding! Here’s my take on this from a few days ago:

    • Leigh Sparks says:

      Absolutely. Good points.

    • Leigh Sparks says:


      Sorry for the brief reply earlier – trying to respond on a phone is never that clever (for me at least). Your points about long term thinking are well made. I wonder about the businesses are not interested in community line – this was not always the case of course and most businesses do have to pay attention to communities; it is just that the communities they often value are not the ones that we as society need to have them value. And as you note when the levers are so skewed in one direction (the rates example) it is hard to blame them for doing what they do. We need to alter the levers to make all pay attention to the vlaues we need long-term. In the Kilmarnock Scottish Government Town Centres Review meeting there was an interesting discussion about how to get government to move away from the concept of economic value alone (which would move schools, offices, and so on out of town) to a concept that adds social value to the equation and prioritises place and community.

      Anyhow thanks for the comment and pointing out your take on the issue (I also note you comment on the London Assembly report – I will be posting about this next week).

  3. Lorraine says:

    I feel the situation exposes a complete lack of leadership and creative thinking from both central and local government – perhaps also from the recipient towns themselves.Surely in this economic crisis there is a place for innovation and for trying to utilise the retail and entrepreneurial skills which must exist within each of the recipient Towns.I feel the current crisis leaves us all complacently looking to others to solve the situation we face.Stirling itself displays a fair number of vacant high street stores and whilst this situation is a threat it must surely also be an opportunity,particularly given the number of tourists visiting the City.Leadership is key as is freeing the entrepreneurial spirit in times of need.

    • Leigh Sparks says:

      There are interesting questions to be asked about the right form of leadership for places and how we grab the opportunities which as you say are out there. At the minute we seem not to have moved beyond the “denial” stage in some places.

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