Crane vs Portas

The majority of this blog entry is authored by my colleague Anne Findlay, who indulged in a little bout of town focused channel surfing one night last week and came across two very different views of towns. In the Scottish corner, Nicholas Crane (Oban) and in the English corner Mary Portas (Liskeard). Over to Anne…

On Tuesday 21st May at 9pm television viewers had a choice of two programmes about towns – BBC1’s ‘Town with Nicholas Crane’ and Channel 4’s ‘Mary Queen of the High Street’. Nicholas Crane’s programme featured Oban in Argyll and Mary Portas’ programme featured Liskeard in Cornwall. The programmes were very different each other. The presenters have very different personalities to say the least; more significantly however their understanding of towns appears to be also very different. The towns are obviously many miles apart but share problems affecting market towns and indeed towns in general.

Mary Portas blamed the vacancy rates in Liskeard on the closure of the livestock market, parking and an out of town superstore. Of these she saw the out of town superstore as the most significant. Her response was to make the fresh food offer in the high street more competitive by focusing on quality, freshness and provenance. Not a bad idea. Other initiatives included a branded Liskeard pie and a ‘Town Shop’ to promote new business. Initial enthusiasm for Mary Portas’ projects was subdued. This viewer was left feeling that this was not so much a bottom up project drawing on local social capital but rather a top down approach which only succeeded due to the determination of Mary Portas to make the TV programme. And as we know determination is one of her definite strengths. Nonetheless, since the making of the programme the ‘Town Shop’ has been repossessed and there is no evidence that the Liskeard pie has become a brand success.

Nicholas Crane was concerned with the wider town and not just the high street. He viewed local employment and local enterprise as key to the well being of Oban. Thinking about ways to increase dwell time in Oban, increasing local footfall and extending the tourist season are identified as the way to ensure that the town remains an important centre. Projects featured on the programme included the community initiative to re-open the livestock market securing additional local trade for the town, new outdoor pursuits enhancing the identity of the town as an exciting place to visit, a food festival intended to extend the tourist season and an emphasis on making local culture more accessible. The community intention is to transform Oban from a gateway to the islands to a destination centre in its own right.

This difference in perspective has several dimensions. The first is the narrow focus on the high street in the Mary Portas’ programme, which contrasts with the wider perspective on the town by Nicholas Crane. Place vs Shops perhaps and hopefully to be further reflected in the difference between the Mary Portas review of high streets and the ongoing Scottish Government’s review of towns. The second is in vision. For Oban a new identity is imagined, but for Liskeard interventions are much more limited in scope. Sustainability or a temporary fix? The third is a contrast between top down initiatives and one which capitalizes on emergent local enterprises.

Places are critically local if they are to work. The future of Scottish towns is challenging, but it is important to find solutions which have the potential for a lasting significant positive impact and not be seduced by the media circus.

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 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Consumer Change, High Streets, Localisation, Mary Portas, Places, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Town Centres and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Crane vs Portas

  1. Lisa Wilkisky says:

    The concept of bringing markets back to the High street to drive and increase footfall to our Town Centres is great. The key to success is in the planning – not only does the venue need careful consideration (ensuring that our Scottish weather doesn’t dampen the concept) but the representation and market ‘mix’ is essential. The consumer expects more and the markets should generate a destination appeal. It’s no longer satisfactory for the farmer, maufacturer or creative designer/crafter to deliver a bland display of produce – customers want fresh, local, innovative merchandise and visual displays. Customers expect the theatre, the vibe and the experience that their local supermarket cannot deliver from a gondola end.

    A visit to Cape Town’s equivalent of these ‘local’ markets is always on my list of ‘must do’s’ when I do my annual trip to my home town – the introduction of the Neighbourgoods Market ( was an initiative, introduced in 2006 in a derelect area of Cape Town that injected a new energy to lower Woodstock, Cape Town. The award winning market features a mix of local farmers, fine food purveyors, bakers, grocers, organic merchants, local chefs, florists, designers and crafters – but it is much more than that – it is alive with music, laughter and a sense of community. Since the inception a number of similar markets have emerged in other towns and suburbs throughout the Cape, all successful in delivering a unique social shopping experience, The Bay Harbour (, Willowbridge – and Quadrant market in Claremont,Cape Town are all good examples of how freshly produced, customised products – not found in supermarkets and shopping malls have added a new dimension to the shoppers experience.

    Scotland has a market for markets – customers flock in their droves to the annual food & drink shows, wedding fayre’s, home expo’s and highland shows at the various exhibition centres around the country, paying increasingly high entrance fees to experience the diverse mix of products that these independant retailers and suppliers offer. Consumers are seeking shopping with a ‘difference’. Local Councils should embrace the opportunity to bring a new, 21st century market experience back to their Town Centres.

    • Leigh Sparks says:


      As I have written before it has always puzzled me why there have been few food markets in Scotland. We have great producers and produce – though much of it is exported – and so why do we not have great places to buy them? It is good to see the recent renaissance but so much more could be done. The local produce available in Cape Town, Montagu and Franschhoek stick with me from my visits to SA.


  2. Jeremy Ireland says:

    As a former student of Leigh’s (hello!) and leader of the successful Leamington Old Town Portas bid I welcome the comments on the place v shops approach as well as the view that a fundamental (and perhaps too slow for tv’s quick fix) understanding of the deeper issues that cause certain behaviours locally that either help success or limit it for particular parts of the UK’s town centres.
    The Leamington Portas Project has embraced this idea of community and resident involvement by deliberately including entrepreneurial community leaders in both the construction of the bid and on its executive. This leads to a dofferent project dynamic sure, but we hope that long term this slow and wide-based foundation will lead to stronger long term success. High streets are funny places- work places, residential areas, entertainment complexes, social hangouts, delivery areas and cultural zones as well as being simply shopping centres. Initiatives that deeply understand this will have to work harder to balance these needs but will benefit from doing so.

  3. Leigh Sparks says:

    Good to hear from you. NIce to read that at least one of the Portas projects is seeing the deeper and longer term need. Be good to catch up on progress at some point.


  4. ust to update – in three years vacancy rate went from 21% to 2.5%
    We have vibrant arts and media hub on the high street privately funded which is both the smallest national theatre live venue in the UK and a successful folk club attracting internationally famous artists,
    Several new bars and tap houses, two craft brewers, (one where customers can brew their own), a canalside student development (which put new water points, power and moorings based our our negotiations with them), five newly refurbished restaurants and coffee houses, an artisan indoor market, four brand new coffee houses, cash machines went from one to seven in the area (relevant as there are a lot of small cash-heavy businesses that need people to be able to get cash).
    There are five or six murals, the car park has doubled its usable space, creative arches have attracted several national brand names, five large regency buildings have been repainted, one employed cobbler raised money to buy out his boss and promply matched project funds to rebuild his shop signage in traditional heavy wood, we had 12 handpainted traditional shop signs created by the project, we started 8 new retail and event businesses, ran about 30 events/markets/community cohesion events/parties.
    We ran a Guerilla Lighting event which gained a portfolio of photos of buildings decoratively floodlit that could be used to promote the area to investors, (but also had legions of people out with cameras and time-lapse kit to get their own footage).

    There’s more, eg a NFU british farming supported education event for children, new experience cafes where kids are dressed up and perform songs from disney films, there was a food retailer with a back shop online business that was so successful they moved out to warehouse premises, an out-there party venue running late night dance events, and probably even more than that!

    Now the area is the subject of a larger project to step up building refurbishment. (so they say – this has been proposed then mothballed, then re proposed for years by the council and partners who write reports then don’t deliver – we did the opposite – no ‘consultancy reports’ and begging for approval and PR for each, just delivery.

    We then generated PR for delivery, not for ‘writing a new report into’ or ‘coming up with new proposals’. that keeps meaning money is given to consultants – who do nice reports but then don’t deliver anything (there were shelves full of these in the council when we started).

    So there you go – delivery works!

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