Portas review won’t revive UK high street, say retail advisors

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The Mary Portas Review into the future of UK high streets, which proposes establishing Town Teams to improve operational management, empowered Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and affordable town centre parking, will not revitalise the high street, according to a leading retail consultant. 

Barry Knight, head of retail at Grant Thornton UK, said: “I don’t see anything from this review, beyond looking at punitive car parking charges to park in out of town sites, that will encourage consumers to go to the High Street.

“Mary Portas is basically suggesting high street landlords have got to be more amenable to retail tenants and in effect reduce the cost of operating from these properties. 

“The creation of Town Teams and the creation of Business Improvement Districts is all well and good, but the question is who is going to pay for them? Therefore, this is a bit of a pipe dream – firstly in that landlords will be put under huge pressure from their banks should they reduce rental levels and as such this is not a commercially viable proposal. 

“Secondly, it is hard to see local councils who are under pressure to cut local parking costs also willing to fund ‘quangos’.

“The increasing number of large supermarkets and their increased push in to non-food combined with internet shopping are major drivers in the decline of the High Street. Mary Portas’ offers no discussion around how or if anything can be done about the impact of these trends.

“To ensure high streets do not fall into terminal decline we need to ensure no properties are empty, regardless of the financial cost and the need to change usage legislation.”

Darina Kerr, partner with national law firm Dundas & Wilson, also questioned whether the Portas review could salvage the UK’s high streets.

“Not every High Street can be saved,” she said. “Some have already reached the end of the road in their current guise, and no tax break or collective action will save locations local consumers have already abandoned. Times change and the high street must change with it. We turned warehouses into penthouses when factories closed down. It’s now time for shops to shape up or ship out.”

But Rupert Eastell, partner and head of retail at Baker Tilly, welcomed the review.

“Retailers are being squeezed by increased rates and reduced traffic, and something needs to be done to help our high streets,” he said.

“The Portas report provides a call to action at a critical time. Regardless of whether you love her or hate her, Mary Portas’ report should stimulate debate about the future of the British high street and, if it leads to just one high street making changes for the better, it will be a success. 

“Portas makes sensible and deliverable recommendations in her report, but change is not down to her. If anything, it is clear councils, community partnerships, local chambers of commerce and businesses must work together, take an honest look at their local high street, and make the tough decisions about the changes necessary for positive momentum.

“High streets have not adapted to out of town shopping centres quickly or efficiently enough and are suffering due to increased competition from large retailers who can beat them on price, if not on ambience and customer experience. A certain level of social entrepreneurship will be necessary to reinvigorate our high streets. For example, many communities have regeneration or community cohesion programmes in place. Surely, if economic regeneration can be incorporated into these programmes, the combined profit motive will create safe and pleasant town centres, where local residents will look forward to spending time and money.”

Jayadeep Nair, VP small business for card payment acquiring business, Streamline, welcomed the Review’s focus on small businesses.

“With SMEs heralded as the key to unlocking economic recovery in Britain, it’s crucial these businesses are given every opportunity to succeed and we’re pleased to see that Mary Portas’ report focuses on giving more power and flexibility to entrepreneurs and new businesses, as they represent the next step in the revival of our high streets,” he said. 

“The high street has a very important role to play in communities across Britain but retailers need the help and support from Government, local council and companies likes ourselves to enables these businesses to offer consumers what they want and keep them buying. What is key to note is this may vary between towns depending on the demographic.”

In her Review, Portas said she wanted to put the heart back into the centre of high streets.

“The new high streets won’t just be about selling goods,” she said. “The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places. They 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. They need to be spaces and places that people want to be in. High streets of the future must be a hub of the community that local people are proud of and want to protect.

“My goal is to breathe economic and community life back into our high streets and town centres. I want to see all our high streets bustling with people, services, and jobs. They should be vibrant places that people choose to visit. They should be destinations. Anything less is a wasted opportunity.”

Click here for a summary of Portas’s 28 recommendations.