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Mary Portas: British High Streets ‘have Reached Crisis Point’

Posted on the 13 December 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Mary Portas: British high streets ‘have reached crisis point’

A typical British high street. Photo credit: IWouldStay http://www.flickr.com/photos/iwouldstay/90235593/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Government consultant Mary Portas’ independent review into the state of Britain’s high streets and town centres has been welcomed by Prime Minister David Cameron (who asked for it) for its “clear vision.” But commentators aren’t entirely convinced that TV’s Queen of Shops Portas has hit the nail flush on the head with her blueprint for re-enlivening Britain’s ailing high streets.

In her report, which took seven months to pull together and was released today, Portas insisted that shops have reached “crisis point” and are likely to “disappear” without decisive action. She has outlined 28 recommendations, including plans to reduce red tape and providing more incentives for town center development. Other proposals include making it easier to set up markets and allowing changes of use when properties stand empty.

Cameron said that high streets should be “at the very heart of every community”, reported Politics Home.

High streets must offer something new if they are to survive. Portas took to the pages of The Daily Telegraph to map out her vision for Britain’s retail sector (and tub thump for her report). “I believe that our high streets have reached a crisis point”, warned Portas, who said that, “unless urgent action is taken, much of Britain will lose, irretrievably, something that is fundamental to our society, and which has real social and economic worth to our communities.” She acknowledged “that out-of-town retail has drained the traffic and shopping trade from our town centres”, but insisted part of the blame for the decline must rest with the high streets for failing to “adapt” to change. “The only hope our high streets have of surviving is to recognize what has happened and to provide something new”, boomed Portas.

“The days of a high street populated simply by independent butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are, except in the most exceptional circumstances, over”, stated Portas in The Daily Telegraph.

Report doesn’t address the structural problems. At The Guardian’s Comment in Free, Felicity Laurence cautiously congratulated Portas on producing “a reasonable analysis” of the “recent pathology of the disease, if not the deeper aetiology: supermarkets were allowed to get too big thanks to planning laws that were too relaxed.” However, Laurence lamented that many of Portas’ proposals are “mere plasters that will not address the structural problems; ultimately, this exercise looks like the Tories wanting to have their cake and eat it. This government will not curb the excessive power of the supermarkets any more than previous ones did. The notion that price wars between the big players keeps inflation in check has always inhibited politicians’ actions … Much of the government’s policy elsewhere is likely to contribute to further decline, favouring big corporates over small independents in trade policies and in new planning rules.” Turning to the future, Laurence argued that the “irony is that the economic climate might start pushing people back into town centres when it is all but too late. The out-of-town big retail model, where leisure becomes shopping, is based on a cheap oil economy. But now the cost of sourcing globally and sending goods in circles through distribution centres up and down motorways is going up dramatically, feeding inflationary pressure. With petrol prices soaring and motorists feeling the pain at the pump, more people are talking about driving less. Giant shopping malls are the incarnation of the debt-fuelled, consumption-led growth that got us in to such trouble. Perhaps this is the mixed high street’s best hope.”

A modest 39 percent of participants in Sky News’ #boultonandco poll believe the British high street does have a future, following publication of Portas’ report.

Better integration between online and offline is needed. Stephen Lepitak of marketing website The Drum suggested that Portas has “missed the point in ignoring ecommerce in her High Street revival strategy.” His piece argued that rather than bricks and mortar retailers viewing e-commerce as the enemy, they should be trying to work more closely with them. The Drum quoted Anton Gething, co-founder and product director for nToklo: “While there is much discussion of the death of the high street in recent years, ultimately, people want to touch and see things and this is borne out by the growth of Apple’s retail outlets across the UK, for example. This Christmas has also seen eBay trial a physical store in central London and arguably most interesting is the House of Fraser store in Aberdeen that that has no products, simply free coffee and assistants with iPads. There are still tough times ahead for many town centres across the UK and how the nut is cracked is not quite clear, but better integration between online and offline is a must if retailers are to succeed.”

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