It’s been five years since David Cameron asked TV’s ‘Queen of Shops’, Mary Portas, to produce a report on the future of Britain’s high streets.
The Portas Review* contained a stark assessment of the challenges high street retailers face, including online shopping and out-of-town superstores, all in the aftermath of a tough recession. But it also made clear the importance of high streets to British society: ‘the heart of towns and cities’, as Portas called them. And it set out an optimistic vision for renewal, with no fewer than 28 recommendations to make it happen.
These recommendations included: setting up local ‘town teams’ to improve high street management; introducing powers to disincentivise owners from leaving shops empty; making more parking free in town centres; and changing planning guidelines to prioritise town centre development.
Experimenting: the Portas Pilots
Following Portas’s advice, the Government set up 27 ‘Portas Pilots’ to test out measures to rejuvenate high streets, backed by £2.3 million of public money. Along with the grants, each participating area received mentoring and support from both Government and industry gurus.
No-one really expected to find a quick fix to the high streets’ challenges, and sure enough the scheme garnered some negative press after its first year, when the number of unoccupied shops increased in ten of the first 12 pilot areas. However, things began to pick up in the second year, with vacancy rates falling in nine of those 12 towns, according to the Local Data Company**.
Showing some love to local markets
Government and industry have taken a number of other steps to implement Portas’s vision. Her suggestion of a ‘National Market Day’ has become ‘Love Your Local Market’ fortnight, run every May by the National Association of British Market Authorities.
More than 1,200 markets took part in last year’s celebrations, hosting special events to attract customers as well as offering subsidised pitches to new traders, giving them a chance to trial market stalls for their business. More than 10,000 market pitches have been provided to new entrants since ‘Love Your Local Market’ began in 2012.
A meeting of minds for the Government and the retail industry
The Future High Streets Forum was established in 2013, chaired by a Government minister but including several of the biggest names in retail. It was tasked with advising the Government on policies to support high streets and town centres. Last year, it produced an online ‘action pack’ to provide information to councils, retailers and communities looking to ‘kick start’ their high street.
The Forum has also spawned the Digital High Street Advisory Board, which focuses on ways for high street retailers to take advantage of digital technology rather than losing out to it. Its report last year recommended a ‘digital laboratory’ offering tools, skills training and apprenticeships – a recommendation that received an encouraging response from the Government.
Bringing online shoppers in-store
Indeed, both Government and retailers are keen to plug high streets into the digital revolution. One of the main ways they’re doing this is through ‘Click and Collect’: allowing customers to pick up their online purchases in high street stores.
Five years ago, Portas predicted that depositaries for items bought online ‘will become like a Post Office’ and said that ‘We need to act now to ensure that these key new community services are located right on our high streets where we need them rather than in malls or out-of-town retail parks.’ As if listening to Portas’s pleas for help, last year, the Government relaxed planning requirements to allow retailers to install Click and Collect lockers without the need for planning permission.
More than token gestures
But there’s still work to be done. In December 2014, Portas herself said that: ‘The Government has made token gestures in response to my review, but much more needs to happen, and fast.’
Since that criticism, George Osborne made business rate reforms one of his priorities to support small businesses. In his final Budget, Osborne announced that, from next April, properties with a rateable value of £12,000 will pay no business rates. He also announced that rates will rise in line with CPI inflation, instead of RPI that tends to be higher – as recommended in the Portas Review. However, that change won’t take effect until 2020.
Portas’s big achievement
As retailers recognise, regenerating high streets is a long-term project. The five years since the Portas Review have not seen an end to empty shops or a reversal in the trends towards online and out-of-town shopping. But they have seen some helpful changes in Government policy – from planning requirements to business rates.
More importantly, they have seen a much greater focus on the fortunes of Britain’s high streets, from business as well as Government. There is now more energy being devoted to helping them thrive – and that, for everyone, is a welcome result.