‘We need to create a level playing field for town centre retailers’
It’s been a year since Mary Portas led a review of England’s struggling high streets.Twelve ‘Portas Pilot’ towns were given a share of just over £1m in a bid to reverse the decline in the first phase followed by a further 15. As the Town Team Advisor for the North West, I was contacted by BBC News journalist Emma Simpson to assist with a BBC news feature that would highlight the complex challenges facing our High Streets and the fact it takes a longer than 1 year to make things happen.
So on a cold, blustery Friday just before the Spring Bank Holiday in May we set about filming in Nelson Town Centre – a Portas Pilot, interviewing businesses and the Town Team Chair and unravelling some of the complex structural issues facing town centres that are hindering the progress of Town Teams and Portas Pilots- tackling vacant units, high rental values, declining footfall and finding alternative uses for excess retail space.
This BBC news piece highlights the reality of the task ahead for our town centres armed with a token sum of £100,000. High streets are an essential part of town centres and always will be but the current town centre business model isn’t working – high streets of the future need to be different; multi channel and multi functional – so lots of place shaping required. We need to explore opportunities to turn surplus empty shops into service, entertainment, social or leisure centres that are fit for purpose for local communities. High Streets need to combine the enthusiasm generated by Mary Portas and the Portas Review with realistic and well managed plans. A lifeline of support and structural change needs to be thrown to declining secondary and tertiary centres in lower income areas like Nelson which means lower business rates, affordable parking, a retail mix that fits the local community and realistic rents by landlords to attract good independent businesses like Dave Hartley.
The work has only just begun for me and fellow Town Team Advisors (at the ATCM) and for the 400 + Town teams and Portas Pilots who are tackling these issues head on and making a commitment to their local High Street. Yes at times our communities feel increasingly powerless to shape our town centres but our High Streets need help now and we’re trying. Don’t knock it, let us get on with the task in hand and lend us your support instead.
Portas pilots -Why Finding a new Shop can be hard (online video)