In May the TV personality and retail expert Mary Portas was appointed by the government to carry out a review of the UK High Street. Her report setting out 28 recommendations designed to "free up the high street from constraint, level the playing field, mobilise landlords and communities, and to address the ongoing management of our town centres" was published today.
Portas doesn't mince her words saying, "The only hope our high streets have of surviving in the future is to recognise what’s happened and deliver something new."
"Although some high streets are thriving, most have a fight on their hands. Many are sickly, others are on the critical list and some are now dead".
She hasn't a lot of sympathy for retailers that haven't moved with the times saying, "We shouldn’t mourn the loss of poorly-run retail businesses that weren’t able to adapt to our 21st century needs" and she allocates a lot of the blame for the demise of the High Street on out of town shopping.
In the last three years 146 out-of-town developments have gained planning consent but the government has only called in one. In the report Mary Portas urges the government to use existing powers to decide whether there has been enough consideration of the impact of out-of-town development on local high streets before granting permission for new ones to be built but she did not recommend a moratorium on any new out-of-town developments.
Portas also called on the government to alter the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to make an explicit presumption in favour of town centre development saying, "I believe that the NPPF needs to be as protective of the effect of development on people’s lives and the places where they live as the existing policy.
"The wording needs to be as precise as possible so it’s really clear that people and place come first and the policy is less vulnerable to legal disputes."
She also wants the government to require all large new development to have an ‘affordable shops’ quota to make sure that local businesses have some designated space in big schemes.
Other key recommendations include: -
- Address the ‘Use Class’ system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street
- Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own
- Set up "Town Teams" - visionary, strategic and strong operational management teams for high streets
- Empower successful Business Improvement Districts [BIDs] to take on more responsibilities and powers to become "Super-BIDs"
- Make it easier for people to become market traders
- Local authorities should make more proactive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to encourage the redevelopment of key high street retail space
- Empower local authorities to step in when landlords are negligent with new "Empty Shop Management Orders"
- Run a high profile campaign to get people involved in Neighbourhood Plans and promote the inclusion of the High Street in Neighbourhood Plans
- Developers should make a financial contribution to ensure that the local community has a strong voice in the planning system
- Support imaginative community use of empty properties through Community Right to Buy
- Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers
- [Large] Retailers should report on their support of local high streets in their annual report
- .......supporting the use of lease structures other than upward only rent reviews, especially for small businesses
Portas maintains that the regeneration of high streets was not just about new retail development saying, "We need to make high streets into places that are about enjoyment as places for culture, creativity, health and wellbeing so we should free up the usage of some properties to allow new models to come in.
"If we can get a viable energetic experience on the high street then people will come and the shops will follow"
"I hope that my recommendations can be a catalyst for change but high streets must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again."
The government will now review the recommendations and will publish a response next spring.
BUSINESS FORUM COMMENT
By her own admission Portas has come up with little that is new saying “When I started my work on the review, I ploughed through a huge pile of previous reports about high streets and town centres and found so many good ideas which have simply sat on the shelf.”
At times her departure into cod sociology is annoying e.g. “As a nation it seems we no longer value the place we live in or the people we live alongside. We no longer value human interaction, socialising or being part of something bigger than ourselves. In fact I think we’ve lost our understanding of what true value is.” But her heart is definitely in the right place and it is perhaps her passion for the subject that sets her report apart from all those others 'sat on the shelf'.
It is ironic that she promotes the formation of “High Street Teams” just at a time when many long established town centre management initiatives are suffering as never before from the public sector cutbacks that partly fund most of them.
She correctly identifies Business Improvement Districts [BIDs] as a powerful force for good in town and city centres [witness our own scheme established six years ago in Brighton] but even these require a critical mass of rate paying premises to make a real difference. In smaller towns they struggle to raise enough money to pay for projects that are transformative and even in established schemes BID levy collection rates will probably plummet over the next two years as stores close down.
The old chestnut of “upward only rent reviews” [effectively meaning that the rent a retailer pays can never go down regardless of the state of the economy] has been precisely that – an old chestnut – for the past 20 years. There has been some progress towards changing it but only for the large players that have the muscle to negotiate. The independents in small shops still labour under a system that is not only manifestly unfair but also counterproductive in the long term.
Promoting ease of change of use would certainly inject some flexibility into High Streets; witness Preston Street in Brighton with the highest and most persistent vacancy rate in the city centre. If some of the empty shops could be quickly converted to low cost office use [and just as easily converted back again] new occupiers might be tempted in bringing with them increased footfall and spending power and certainly presenting a better image than empty shops.
And finally to the villain of the piece: out-of-town retail. Countless town centres have been decimated by these increasingly opulent palaces of consumption located conveniently close to motorways and offering easy access and free parking. Sadly, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle but even they will buckle under the increasing competition from the internet.
Mary Portas has hit the nail on the thumb when she correctly predicts that those High Streets that will survive are the ones that offer far more than a place to shop. The ones that thrive will be those that are a joy to visit with an offer than encompasses culture, entertainment, architecture, security, service beyond excellence and real community benefit; like Brighton.
Click here to download Mary Portas Review of the UK High Street
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