Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas officially unveiled her review into the future of UK High Streets today. She presented her report at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
She said: “I don’t want to live in a Britain that doesn’t care about community. And I believe that our high streets are a really important part of pulling people together in a way that a supermarket or shopping mall, however convenient, however entertaining and however slick, just never can.
“Our high streets can be lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community. Something which, as the recent riots clearly demonstrated, has been eroded and in some instances eradicated.
“I fundamentally believe that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow."
She made 28 recommendations, which are listed below. Her full report can be downloaded here.
Portas wants new retailers to get preferential business rates, something that will make existing small retailers bristle. She also said: "It’s clear to me that rates are more of a burden for new and struggling businesses. For struggling businesses a Hardship Fund is already available (although I think awareness of it could be raised) and small businesses have access to Small Business Rate Relief, which the Chancellor has recently extended. So there is some support available – but I think more could be done."
Portas said she’s a fan of the big four supermarket chains because they’re the best in the world but added: "What really worries me is that the big supermarkets don’t just sell food anymore, but all manner of things that people used to buy on the high street. Supermarkets now allocate more than one third of their floor space to non-food sales.
"These retail items, once the preserve of specialists on our high streets, are now being sold in volume, and with real sophistication, by the generalists.
"I think we need a more sophisticated understanding of what a good deal for consumers is, looking beyond simply price-based considerations to include community wellbeing and long-term sustainability."
Referring to a report last year called ‘Clone Town Britain’ by the New Economics Foundation, Portas said:
"Historically, high streets looked after themselves, and brought immense social as well as economic benefits to British towns. But so many of us leave our communities to do our shopping and our socialising these days.Our high street economies have been displaced. Research by the New Economics Foundation shows that the money we are spending off the high street is more likely to leave the local area straight away, having less economic impact than spending in retailers with a localised supply chain.
"We are actually limiting our future economy by not supporting the new retailers and entrepreneurs that could be our future."
Portas has read – and has quoted from the works of – Danish architect Jen Gehl and American journalist Jane Jacobs. Gehl is famous for his ‘space between the buildings’ concept of roads, arguing that people should come before motor vehicles in towns and cities. Jacobs wrote a blistering and influential 1961 critique of car culture in America, a book that demonstrated how motor vehicles strangle urban areas, a problem that has got worse since the 1960s.
But Portas tries to have it to both ways: she wants towns and cities to have free or cheaper car parking – with parking league tables to help consumers vote with their accelerator pedals – but then says she wants high streets "bustling with people."
"When I visited one town I learned about a key car parking issue. A couple of years ago the Council decided to create a red route along the length of the high street and stop people parking either side of the street to visit the shops. The Council collected hundreds of thousands of pounds in parking fines but it wasn’t clear that any of this money was reinvested in the local community or high street; let alone in upgrading the parking facilities."
If cars are allowed – or even encouraged – to park both sides of the street, the street is effectively cut in two and becomes less attractive to shoppers. Many shoppers now prefer out of town shopping centres, partly because the parking is free but also because the shopping aisles are pedestrian-only zones.
Portas does not recommend taxing car parking at out of town shopping centre to level the playing field with the High Street, a massive oversight believe many ‘people first’ town planners.
Yet Portas recognises that the High Street ought to be pedestrian-friendly:
"Out-of-town centres create an environment where the shopper comes first, with wide footways and pedestrianised streets, and good public transport links such as free buses. This has taken business away from our high streets. In order to be places that people want to visit, high streets need to be accessible, attractive and safe.
"For example, badly planned transport infrastructure can make high street shopping an inaccessible and unpleasant experience for pedestrians. And small and cluttered pavements, as well as busy roads, can make high streets unsafe for family shopping. Local areas need to plan transport carefully to maximise the accessibility and attractiveness of high streets.
She adds that "Our high streets need to offer a safe and pleasant place to shop and socialise" but can’t get away from a car-centric mentality, a British (and American) disease.
As John The Monkey snarked on Twitter this morning: "We’ve all seen the blighted desolation of city centres like Bruges, who unwisely restricted cars, the fools."
Put in place a “Town Team”: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets
Empower successful Business Improvement Districts to take on more responsibilities and powers and become “Super-BIDs”
Legislate to allow landlords to become high street investors by contributing to their Business Improvement District
Establish a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business
Make it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason why not
Government should consider whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers
Local authorities should use their new discretionary powers to give business rate concessions to new local businesses
Make business rates work for business by reviewing the use of the RPI with a view to changing the calculation to CPI
Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table
Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe Government should include high street deregulation as part of their ongoing work on freeing up red tape
Address the restrictive aspects of 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
Make explicit a presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework
Introduce Secretary of State “exceptional sign off ” for all new out-of-town developments and require all large new developments to have an “affordable shops” quota
Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers
Retailers should report on their support of local high streets in their annual report
Encourage a contract of care between landlords and their commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code and supporting the use of lease structures other than upward only rent reviews, especially for small businesses
Explore further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant
Banks who own empty property on the high street should either administer these assets well or be required to sell them
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”
Introduce a public register of high street landlords Run a high profile campaign to get people involved in Neighbourhood Plans
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, Meanwhile Use and a new “Community Right to Try”
Run a number of High Street Pilots to test proof of concept
Pic by Bisgovuk