UK: Portas Review On High Streets And Town Centres - It's All About The Brand

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
Article by Charles Clarke

Mary Portas' appearance before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee offered little for those looking for substantial debate or facts on changes being made in Britain's high streets in response to the implementation of the recommendations of the Portas Review issued in late 2011. It was, however, a fascinating insight into what can happen when a TV celebrity becomes embroiled in politics.

The timeline runs something like this. Consumer shopping trends and the economic downturn lead to empty shops across Britain's high streets. Some now resemble ghost towns. All the while the out of town centres populated by the large retailers thrive. Mary Portas is an expert in retailing, a self-proclaimed champion for Britain's high streets and has become a TV celebrity. The government accept the death of the high street and commission Portas to carry out an independent review.

Brand management

By her own admittance lending her name to it meant that the issue got pushed up news agendas, and is presumably why the Government chose her instead of a university professor without a media profile. The Portas Review reported making recommendation and the Government set about putting this into action through, among other things, Portas Pilots.

Co-incidentally, Portas makes a further TV programme off the back of the pilot projects. Business leaders and the press take pot-shots at Portas because there isn't an immediate re-population of all empty units in the high street. Portas gets upset at not having the support of Government in order to answer her critics.

And then comes this appearance before the Select Committee on Monday (03.09.13).

There was plenty of confusion. MPs thought that with her name spread over projects that she had an official role. Mary didn't know quite what her role was; she was not being paid by Government, but remained a campaigner for the plight of the high street and travelled the country still looking at high streets. MPs sought results from the projects that had been put in place as a result of her recommendations. 'Ask the Government' was Mary's common response at times, because it was their job to implement the recommendations.

Now the celebrity brand consultant Portas finds herself being quizzed over policies for which she is not responsible but are being carried on under her brand. Could it be that the brand consultant of brand consultants didn't think about the implications for her own brand of doing such a review and subsequent implementation of it?

Councils' apprehension

Confusion as to her ongoing role aside, Portas was an engaging witness and when the recommendations of her review were discussed she was a forceful campaigner for her views.

One of her recommendations was the giving of money from central funds to be used by Town Teams in the Pilots to promote events to draw people into the high streets. Dartford Council are reported to have spent £1600 of their allocation on a Peppa Pig outfit for someone to wear as part of an event to draw families back to the town centre. Criticism followed. But MPs raised concerns that some councils were not spending what allocation they had been given.

Portas thought that there was some apprehension among councils to take risks and that they needed a toolkit (from government) to help apply the funds. In light of the criticism of Dartford Council it is no wonder why. Portas was at pains to point out that pilots were there for risks to be taken and lessons learned, hence why there were pilots.

Too quick to judge?

One MP quoted from a BBC Radio 4 review of the Portas Pilots which noted that in one pilot town more retail units had closed than had opened. A fully justifiable and oft-used refrain from Portas was that it was too early to judge the results of the recommendations and there was no quick fix. Figures and closure reflecting market trends and consumer spending that were years in the making could not be turned round so quickly.

Mary preferred to set herself a 15 year dream when we all say we are "going into town" rather than "going shopping" i.e. we make a day of going into town for food, leisure activities and some shopping, rather than just use it for the shops where we can't get things online and then go off for our leisure activities at separate out of town facilities.

Business Rates

Portas could offer no immediate winning solution but saw that a failure to tackle and reduce business rates was a stopper to growth. Businesses needed an incentive to come back into the town centres, she said, and this is one area ripe for incentive. But councils offering a reduction in business rates would of course want to make up funds from elsewhere, and when asked if councils should increase residential rates to subsidise lower business rates, she gave this an emphatic thumbs down.

Rent Reviews

Brief mention was made of the argument that the Government should legislate against upward only rent reviews. Portas was against upward only rent reviews, but she did not wish to tarnish all landlords with the same brush and didn't offer (and wasn't pressed) for a run through the case. Some landlords were absentees, others active, and those taking a practical view were the ones with paying tenants.

Get Out of Town

One line of reasoning for the big retailers moving to out of town shopping centres is that their business model requires a set size and a set layout to best show off their products and run a successful operation. Uniformity can best be achieved often by new build shopping centres where the developers can build to order rather than a retailer having to alter its format to fit in a high street space made for something else.

Part of Portas' call was not just incentives for retailers to stay in town, but some active disincentive for moving out of town, but she admitted there was an inequality of arms. Big retailers have the "sophistication" - the funding and legal resources to get themselves through the planning quagmire - whereas councils have limited resources with which they can fight to defend their own decisions, were they to put obstacles in the way of the big retailers.

Where now?

Hot on the heels of Portas' appearance before Parliament, Bill Grimsey, the former boss of Wickes (DIY chain) is to publish his alternative recommendations for the high street. The recommendations are not published at the time of writing this piece, but those that have been trailed focus on the big retailers with sales of over £10m p.a. paying a one off levy of 0.25% of UK sales into a fund used to sponsor start-ups. This would raise c.£550m for such a fund, but of course we have seen with the Portas Pilots some apprehension at local level of how to use funds given under the Portas Review. Would we end up with the same problem here? Councils sitting on funds with no consensus on how to spend it?

Grimsey had been a harsh critic of Portas, labelling her work as a "PR stunt". Let it not go unstated that Bill Grimsey has a book to sell on the topic and a career as a conference speaker in the band of £5-10k according to his booking agency JLA's website. Portas wondered aloud in front of the Select Committee what she had done to Grimsey in a former life, but concluded his anger will have been the result of not being consulted by Portas. It is clear that both Grimsey and Portas are experts in their respective fields, and can quite legitimately hold different views.

But it does leave the Government in a quandry. Can and should the Government jump from the Portas ship to the Grimsey ship in terms of its policy focus? Both campaigners clearly have experience which the Government should tap into, but Portas has the television platform with which to shout the loudest and campaign. Portas had received re-assurances from the Prime Minister that promoting Britain's high streets was one of his top priorities, but she was all too well aware - even amid her self-confessed political naivety - that the Prime Minister has a lot of competing top priorities.

All of this leaves Government in a tight spot - can it, and should it, artificially attempt to hold back the tide against consumer trends? Can government force stand up to market forces?

Article by Owen Byrne, Trainee Solicitor, Bircham Dyson Bell LLP

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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