It’s seven months since Mary Portas was asked by Government to suggest ways to reinvigorate Britain’s ailing High Streets, and her fifty-page report was published last week. Sorry to be so critical, but with high expectations (I am an admirer of hers) I was disappointed after reading it – the vast majority of it seemed so stuck in the status quo – of how small traders are disadvantaged by local councils, of bemoaning the inexorable rise of the supermarket “generalist” (never mind that these same supermarkets are what shoppers actually prefer), and of the need for inclusive, commercially-minded High St “teams” (Mary feels that the salvation to town retail woes is to have a Committee to think up ideas for us all).
Sadly, the review shies away from the ‘elephant in the room’ – that the High St proposition simply isn’t compelling anymore to very many people. We like the convenience, the multichannel access, the pricing, the range and the freedom that out of town, internet and mobile shopping offers. Unsurprisingly, we prefer not to sit in traffic approaching clogged High Streets, (buses are just as affected by this too), or pay parking charges for items that could just as easily be delivered. Home delivery is greener too, and slicker delivery windows are removing the need to wait in all day. Instead, we can make a trip to somewhere that’s rewarding, that offers a distinctive, valuable and desirable experience. This could be located where the High St is now, but Mary’s ideas (such as a National Market Day) simply demonstrate how piecemeal her proposals are. It has the rose tinted ambition of a Jubilee Street Party that feels good for a couple of hours, but really changes nothing.
We need a High St proposition that works every day, not once a year. For me, the starting point for achieving this is a foundation on what our towns really desperately need: affordable and environmentally friendly housing. This is precisely the kind of redevelopment that could rejuvenate central town locations. It’s a far more radical solution than the Portas Review, but it makes more sense. If future community space was anchored around modern housing, the ‘retail’ mix would include restaurants, bars, entertainment, creches, gyms – all the things that Portas fleetingly mentions in 2 pages at the back of her report, but set in the context of peoples’ real lives, rather than dreaming up a reason for it all to exist, based on a romantic return to Victorian shop-keeping.
And whatever the redevelopment at a local level, it should be designed to complement major shopping malls, not belittle or undermine them. Janice Turner, in last weeks’ Saturday Times, offers a real world example of this, when going Christmas shopping at Westfield with her mother: “an ordinary town centre would have been impossible, with its distances, crowds, no parking. But in the London shopping centre, we had lifts, loos, we could borrow a wheelchair. My Mother bought plenty, whilst I shopped in my new modern way – making a mental note of things to buy, ignoring the queues and going home to order them online.”
The irony is that Mary Portas is clearly FULL of ideas for retail. Anyone who has watched her TV shows will realise the imagination and intuition she has for this industry. But rather than take pity on the High Street, by artificially propping up its out-of-date infrastructure, I’d rather see her report used as evidence that our town centres need to be primarily places to live, not shop.