I have recently finished reading Mary Portas’s Review of High Streets report. I don’t intend to give a closely argued critique of it because I agree with most of what she has to say. So, I shall just list her 28 recommendations – as this may save some people reading the whole report themselves; and then will just give a few comments and thoughts where I particularly liked what she had to say.
Put in place a ‘Town Team’, a visionary strategic and strong operational management team for high streets;
Empower successful BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) to take on more responsibilities and powers and become a ‘SuperBID’;
Legislate to allow landlords to become high street investors by contributing to their BID;
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 these 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 rates concessions to new local businesses;
Review use of RPI to upgrade Business Rates annually instead of RPI;
Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and 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 UK National Planning Policy Framework;
Secretary of State should have a new ‘exceptional sign-off’ for all new out-of-town development and require all large new development 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 commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code and supporting leases other than upward only rent reviews especially for small businesses;
Explore disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant;
Banks who own empty property on high streets should be required to administer these assets well or be required to sell them;
Local Authorities should make more proactive uses of CPO powers to encourage redevelopment of key retail spaces;
Empower Local Authorities to step in when landlords are neglecting buildings 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;
This finishes her 28 recommendations, but I want to highlight, quote and comment on a few things which were in the body of the report. Mainly because I agree with them and feel they are worth stressing.
‘Once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’.
‘Much of what we do know about high streets is stored within professional silos…..the information lies stagnating and festering somewhere…..and most thinking has been done in isolation rarely backed by any kind of creative vision’.
‘What really worries me is that the big supermarkets don’t just sell food anymore, but all manner of things that people need to buy on the high street. Supermarkets now allocate more than 1/3rd of their floor space to non-food sales. Sainsbury’s are the seventh largest clothing retailer by volume in the UK.’
‘My concern extends to the progressive sprawl of supermarkets into needs-based services such as opticians and doctors’ surgeries’.
‘These critical high street and town centre services must not be simply gobbled up by the major supermarkets. It is these social and cultural experiences which will provide critical reasons to go into town as opposed to driving to the shopping centre’.
‘We need to look beyond simply price-based considerations but to include community well-being and long-term sustainability when considering what a good deal for consumers is’.
‘We are limiting our future economy by not supporting the new retailers and entrepreneurs that could be our future’.
‘We are also losing social as well as economic capital’.
‘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’.
‘They (high streets) should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities’.
‘High Streets must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again’. (My Thought/comment: most institutions don’t take risks, so the public sector has to become more entrepreneurial or do the things which enable others to become entrepreneurial).
‘There is no generic solution (as there is no such thing as a generic high street)’ (My thought/comment: but most ‘consultants’ look to apply a generic approach).
Local Authorities, landlords, retailers and the public need to work together to really animate the spaces they occupy, creating and nurturing their own unique places
My thoughts/comments on the last few points: This is why we need people involved who think this way, and are interested in town centres and high streets, rather than the sort of consultants and ‘officers’ who don’t go into high streets and town centres, because essentially they don’t see themselves as part of the wider community.
‘The ‘Town Team’ should ‘curate’ the high street and decide the mix of shops and services andanything not meeting the plan should be allowed. This shouldn’t be the sole discretion of a Planning Committee.’ (My thought/comment: I pleased she used the term ‘curate’ – this is exactly what has to be done with town centres and high streets).
(Many BIDS are) ‘Lacking in crafting and delivering a unique and compelling vision’. (My thoughts: there is nothing stopping the BID Manager trying to do this – as in most things it is down to the quality of the individual).
‘The Super-Bid should have the same rights as Local Authorities to use CPO powers and enter and upgrade strategic properties, bringing empty property back into use. (My thoughts/comments: It is very poor that Local Authorities are not already doing this).
‘Address the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street’ (My thoughts/comments: It is interesting that she doesn’t say that she supports an automatic right to turn offices into homes – but talks about having a plan within which to work – ‘each place is unique’).
‘Quite frankly the cost of trading in many areas far outweigh the benefits of being in a town. The burden of business rates has come up time and again and Business Rates need to work for the High Street’. (My thoughts/comments: It is the total costs which are important, and I feel that in many places the rents are too high and we need a re-set. – It would be interesting to start from first base: ‘I can sell this much, it costs me this, my profit has to be this, so the residual I can afford to pay in rent is x? Do rents and rates need to be reset?)
‘Need to proactively develop new players and future entrepreneurs’. (My thoughts/comments: Agree strongly. But there needs to be a strategy, e.g. perhaps saying ‘we need a butchers therefore they will get the Business Rates discount’).
‘Use Classes – could Local Development Orders be used to make it easier to swap between uses? But need to balance and not to let the high street get unbalanced (e.g. too many charity shops, or fast food outlets) Betting shops, especially in deprived areas are blighting our high streets (Betting shops are classed as financial and professional services!) and need a separate Use Class’. (My thoughts/comments: This means that we need proactive local authorities, and good and imaginative Town Planners – unfortunately there are too few of these.)
‘Government must make an explicit presumption in favour of town centre development and must use clear and precise language to make policy less vulnerable to legal disputes’. (My thoughts/comments: I am quite fed up making this point,about being clear, to officials who draft policy – I am sure they positively invite legal challenge).
‘Big retailers should help and mentor small businesses and share their marking, strategy, and knowledge etc’. (My thoughts/comments: I made exactly this proposal, amongst many others which are reflected in Mary’s report, to a BID’s board).
‘Local Authorities should make more proactive uses of CPO powers to encourage redevelopment of key retail spaces’. (My thoughts/comments: I totally agree with this but see comment above about SuperBIDS having these powers).
‘Using comparators in setting rents is often unhelpful’. (My thoughts/comments: I have been saying this for years – it is nice when you find someone who agrees with you).
‘Public owned property on high streets should be exemplars and shouldn’t be left empty or in poor condition – (eg start-ups; using space over shops for meetings etc)’. (My thoughts/comments: Agree: this was one point covered in my MSc Dissertation, so nice to see it mentioned).
‘Neighbourhood Plans need to be funded and need guidance and help’. (My thoughts/comments: otherwise they are just a bit of political spin or puff).
‘What really matters, what is really important, is that we roll up our sleeves and just make things happen’. (My thoughts/comments: In many ways this is the most important thing which needs to happen – we have had plenty of thought but now we need action and it is only people who can make things happen).
Hopefully this is useful. By reading this you should have the salient points of Mary’s report without having to read it word-for-word.
If anyone wants any help in making this happen to their high street, or town centre, give me a call. I believe in action as well as words.