Wednesday, December 14, 2011

mary portas: saviour of the high street?

I’ve just finished reading Mary Portas’s 50-page independent review into the future of our high streets. She’s obviously a very astute businesswoman and the government would do well to adopt many of her ideas and recommendations.
As you might guess (if you've ever read any of my previous posts on the subject), I was particularly interested in what she had to say about supermarkets!
She DID make a number of pertinent observations on the subject, for example:
• The fact is that the major supermarkets and malls have delivered highly convenient, needs-based retailing, which serves today’s consumers well. Sadly the high streets didn’t adapt as quickly or as well.
• She recommended that the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system should be addressed to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street.
• Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers.
• What really worries me is that the big supermarkets don’t just sell food anymore, but all manner of things that people used to buy on the high street. They’ve been expanding their reach into homewares, stationery, books, flowers – you name it. Supermarkets now allocate more than one third of their floor space to non-food sales.
• These critical high street and town centre services must not be simply gobbled up by the major supermarkets.
• Change on our high streets will come from people not just policies. Charismatic, local people with a vested interest in protecting their town centres and revitalising their communities will, if empowered to do so, inevitably lead the charge for change.
• We are burying our heads in the sand about the social and economic impact. A pound spent in a retailer with a localised supply chain that employs local people has far greater domestic economic impact than a pound spent in a supermarket or national chain. What’s more, out-of-town developments are often presented as major new sources of employment but we need to recognise that this ‘job creation’ is often just job displacement.
• We need to put the heart back into our high streets and inspire that connection between local people and their ‘home town’. Localism must truly mean local people having a voice and influence.
• The planning system is too susceptible to those who can afford an army of lawyers and the costs can put off those with legitimate appeals, as a recent study found out. There seems to be an imbalance in the planning system which we need to address.
• We should be getting local people engaged early in the planning process and able to influence the future of their areas. I’ve heard too many examples of communities being against a big development but it going ahead anyway. People need a powerful, legitimate voice and planning needs to be a much more collaborative process than it has been to date. The Government, working alongside the big developers, should explore how the local community can be given sufficient support and a stronger voice in the planning system.

Disappointingly, her review also contained some sweeping statements that seemed to miss the point, such as:
There should be an explicit presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework (that’s obviously not going to discourage supermarkets in any way!).
Developers should make a financial contribution to ensure that the local community has a strong voice in the planning system (this smacks of blackmail money being paid out by supermarkets to secure planning permissions – oh, don’t they do this already?).
In the main, I felt that Portas merely acknowledged the “supermarket problem” and actually failed to address the key issues:
• Unless planning policies are changed, supermarkets will happily continue to take over our high streets.
• It’s all very well saying that “charismatic, local people with a vested interest in protecting their town centres and revitalising their communities will, if empowered to do so, inevitably lead the charge for change” but, sadly, we know from our own local experience that council planning committees are influenced by big business and NOT by town planning guidelines, local needs or community action.
Portas’s report included the following telling comment from “The Right to Retail: Can localism save Britain’s small retailers?” by A Schoenborn:
“The majority of shopkeepers polled felt that they had an unfair disadvantage in comparison with major supermarkets in the planning system. In this, they echo a view held by many communities and activist groups that have struggled to exert control of their local high streets. Concerns include that the resources available to major retailers make it significantly harder for local authorities to challenge submissions by supermarkets for planning permission, compared with smaller retailers. Particularly, local authorities’ decisions may be influenced by a cost-benefit assessment on the basis that supermarkets are able to fund costly appeals against refusals and claim costs if they win, or resubmit modified versions of refused applications. Better resourcing also allows major developers to exploit legal loopholes in land usage, offer local authorities “sweeteners” in exchange for planning permission or bypass planning objections by funding major developments.”
I think the government should be commended for commissioning this report – and Mary Portas, with her “tell-it-like-it-is” attitude, was an excellent choice as its author. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think it contains enough “clout” against the power of the “big retailers” (and big business in general)… and, we all know, that the government is therefore hardly likely to take it upon itself to crack down on such organisations.
Who knows, I might be proved wrong!

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