Mary Portas’s plans for our high streets

On December 12, the Telegraph alerted the nation to a report by Mary Portas which contains 28 recommendations for our high streets.

James Hall, the Telegraph‘s Consumer Affairs Editor, wrote (emphases mine):

Years of “erosion, neglect and mismanagement” have left many town centres and market towns on the brink of extinction, the television presenter and retail expert says in a wide-ranging review into the UK’s troubled high streets.

Ms Portas warns that unless “urgent action” is taken, “much of Britain will lose, irretrievably, something that is fundamental to our society”.

Vacancy rates in market towns have doubled in the last two years as stores have closed down due to the economic downturn. This year alone an estimated 20 shops have closed every day across the country. One in seven shops on UK high streets currently stand[s] empty, although in some towns as many as four in ten shops are vacant.

“Many [high streets] are sickly, others are on the critical list and some are now dead,” Ms Portas says in her long-awaited review into the future of Britain’s high streets, which was commissioned by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, in May.

The comments following the article are excellent, and most of the older comments put forward constructive ideas, many of which concerned rates and rent, which most thought were too high and out of the reach of smaller shopkeepers.  Other complaints concerned the cost of parking, with which I also agree.

Only larger national or international chains seem to be able to afford trading on the high street. Consequently, everything looks the same. I’ve also noticed this in other European cities from Cannes to Barcelona.

As one Telegraph commenter, wolfmeister (12/13/2011 11:55 AM), put it (edited for punctuation):

Corporates use their position to price out the high street and establish their stores in subsidised form as an advertisement for the brand.

For example we have now some 7 or 8 mobile phone shops on the once rather cool Kings Road in Chelsea (which now looks no different to any other high street). None of them ever have any customers in, they are 100% no way covering their rents from their earnings/revenue. They are subsidised by the corporate head offices for T-Mobile, Orange, O2, Dixons Group, Carphone Warehouse …  etc.

It’s the same with Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King, etc., etc. Our local cafe is now a Starbucks, our other local cafe is now a mobile phone shop, etc., etc.

Gradually bit by bit it happens, and I believe Portobello Rd is next to be “corporatized” …

Not all of Portas’s recommendations are bad. (I’m not a fan, by the way.) However, many rely on Government intervention, either nationally or locally. How much more money would go to waste on her proposed schemes?

She wants to make high streets into community-oriented places, but that cannot happen if there are too many establishments of one type (hairdressers, estate agents, mobile phone shops, takeaways). We somehow need to recapture the variety of what we had before, with butchers, bakers and the modern equivalent of candlestick makers.

With Britons travelling increasingly to the United States either on business or for pleasure, they are beginning to see more of the country, warts and all. My family and I have personally witnessed the sad transformation of a number of medium-sized American conurbations — as well as larger ones, such as Detroit — which have lost their city centres within a matter of years. Along with that has been a loss of the heart of community. Some have pedestrianised high streets. Those have done nothing to further a local identity and belonging. With no shops or very few, what is the point in going there? Sad though it is, people naturally gravitate to malls on the outskirts of town. At least one can buy clothes, baked goods and household items there in a reasonably secure atmosphere. Furthermore, a supermarket is never far away from a mall.  Yes, unfortunately, most of these shops are national chains.

Now, all that used to be in the mom-and-pop American high street. But no more — or rarely. And it doesn’t matter how many young people try their hand at trading for a day (Portas recommendation No. 4); if they cannot afford the rates and rent, they’ll go nowhere fast. In fact, they won’t even get a look in, much less a foot in the door.

Judging from what I have seen in the US, it takes less than a decade for a high street to die. Sometimes it only takes as little as five years. Watch the main department store close and see how many other shops go bust in quick succession after that.

Our UK rates are high. So are rents. Personally, I lay the blame at the feet of landlords and estate agents who have driven many small shopkeepers out of business. I can name several shops on my own high street which had to close because of a drastic increase in rent. Their successors have fared no better.

I think that we should put pressure on these people, particularly estate agents dealing in commercial property. I do not think that Government should get involved, only citizens equipped with reliable knowledge that they put forward on blogs (perhaps OoL) or fora. This would drive people to write letters of protest to local newspapers, to the local council or to the estate agents themselves.

That’s the best answer I can come up with for now during a busy Christmas season. Have you any others to offer? It could be something to follow up on in the New Year.

22 comments for “Mary Portas’s plans for our high streets

  1. December 16, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Perhaps nobody wants the High Street any more…?

    Smoky, dirty, noisy, impossible to park and covered in rubbish.

    I’d much rather go to a mall to be honest.

    And now the malls and out-of-town shopping centres are there – who would want to go back to the High Street?

    Mary Portas said on the wireless that the High Street needed a department store and then the other shops would follow. But why would the department store return to an empty high street anyway – they probably left the same place to head to the mall…

    • December 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm


      • December 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm

        Buses, delivery trucks, etc.

  2. Mudplugger
    December 16, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    It’s called evolution.

    We have evolved away from all living clustered round our shops and our workplaces (Phase 1), and we are currently evolving away from the out-of-town mall (Phase 2), onto the Internet (Phase 3). It’s a gradual but inexorable process, the mix changing all the time, but moving in the same direction. Nothing the admirable Ms Portas can do will reverse this trend.

    We don’t yet know what Phase 4 will be, but you can be sure it will appear over some horizon.

    In the meantime, people still need stuff, so they’ll buy their stuff in the places which suit them at the time. The smartest retailers will survive and thrive, the rest will not – I’m sure Darwin had some thoughts on this process.

  3. December 16, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Sorry to read such death wish comments about our high streets, which have been an integral part of our society for centuries.

    • December 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      It is not a death wish – they’ve died already. Hence Portas’ comments…

      • December 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm

        Gosh. I can think of any number which are still alive and doing reasonably well, given the current economic climate.

        • December 16, 2011 at 2:13 pm

          Years of “erosion, neglect and mismanagement” have left many town centres and market towns on the brink of extinction, the television presenter and retail expert says in a wide-ranging review into the UK’s troubled high streets.


          • December 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm

            The operative word there is ‘many’.

  4. Edgar
    December 16, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Let the Banks, Building Societies, Estate Agents, and Money Exchanges have the High Streets, then nuke the lot from high orbit.

  5. Tedious Tantrums
    December 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Parking is a key element to this. Parking charges have become cash cows for local authorities and the charges do not reflect a true market rate. There is little if any competition.

    I spent some time working in Boise Idaho in the USA a few years ago. Driving into the centre was fairly easy and parking readily available. You got a ticket from the car park once you’d parked which you took with you when you went to the shops. If you went into a shop they would stamp your card whether you bought something or not.

    Once your card had either 6 or 8 stamps you got free parking. I never paid for parking all the time I was there.

    They also had late opening every Thursday night. The shops stayed open later and they had entertainment in the shops. The cafe come newsagents staff put wee home written plays on, the art shop had a guy playing the guitar and the book shop had an artist painting and given tips etc.

    There was no litter, no graffiti and barely a raised voice EVER!The biggest incident during the time I was there was when a local Christian group demonstrated over the road from a gay bar. A gay chap mooned at them and the police arrived. They arrested Christians and gay alike.

    Every month the local concert hall had free concerts and they also had a succession of music events held outside which were also free. This included beer within reason. No drunks. Ever.

    Things may have changed since I was there but I’d prefer not to know if they have.

    • December 16, 2011 at 5:51 pm

      Thanks for that recollection — it was a pleasure to read and gives a model which many of our towns and villages could use.

      Appreciated your positive comment!

      Nearly every time I go to our high street, I run into someone I know. I’m also well acquainted with most of our shopkeepers as are many of the other residents; we have a chat when it’s not busy.

      For me, it’s a real pleasure to be able to walk to the shops for groceries, dry cleaning, stamps, greeting cards, watch batteries (jewellers), meat (butchers), veg (greengrocers), wine (great off-licence) and so on. I would hate to lose all this, and despite what others here are saying, so would many of my neighbours.

  6. December 16, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Let the high streets go, then Nature will take over!

  7. Bessie
    December 17, 2011 at 1:32 am

    I live near a nice little shopping street — not a high street as such, but it has a fantastic butcher, a pretty good baker, a delicatessen, a newsagent, and so on. I don’t go there as often as I could, simply because the grocery shops are awful. I would actually prefer one of them to be taken over by one of the supermarket chains. Then I might be able to buy milk that has been kept competently in a fridge, leading-brand dry or tinned goods that are not massively overpriced, and own-brand dry or tinned goods that are edible. Unfortunately, whenever one of the supermarket chains applies to open a mini-supermarket, residents’ groups petition the local council until they back down, on the grounds that it would drive out the butcher, baker, etc. But would that necessarily happen? Surely the local council could limit unwelcome competition by restricting the kinds of goods the mini-supermarket could sell. How hard can it be?

    • December 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

      Agree with you, Bessie. That’s how it works in France.

      I don’t understand why people make such a big issue about a Tesco Express moving in. Often the goods are more varied, fresher and less expensive than in some independent grocery shops.

  8. Rossa
    December 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Our local BBC news programme highlighted this situation, claiming that 19% of shops in Bradford and Rotherham were empty compared to 9% in York and Harrogate. I loved it when they said they were investigating why this was happening. Well first off there is more money and tourists in York/Harrogate and when they showed the shops in Bradford and Rotherham they all looked rundown, pavements were filthy and with double yellow lines outside and no passing trade the pictures told a 1,000 words when just one would do. Depressing.

    Yet if you go to Linley or Hebden Bridge it shows what can be done but it does take effort from the local community and shopkeepers working together.

    And Bradford doesn’t do itself any favours by spending over £30bn on a new city centre vanity project (Water Park) rather than investing that money in things local taxpayers actually want and need.

    • Mudplugger
      December 17, 2011 at 9:33 pm

      Knowing the area well, it’s a tad unfair to quote as a model of an average British city centre the one of Bradfordistan.

      But, perversely, there is probably more successful retail trade carried out in that city centre than in most others – trouble is, it’s all illegal narcotics, weapons, dodgy motors and ladies’ services, none of which are taxed, hence the City Council, bankrupt of both cash and ideas and increasingly dominated by the Islamafia, just keeps digging even bigger holes into which to pour what funds it can scrape together from its few remaining paying residents.

      Within living memory, once one of the wealthiest cities in Europe – pity poor Bradfordistan. An object lesson in how not to do it.

  9. December 18, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Just imagine for a second that the ‘OWNERS’ of some of the high street shops had an opportunity to invest in a centralised clean and ‘NEW’ building: A Mall.
    Now it will not be ALL the owners however I believe quite a few will, certainly the BIG corps will.
    So When the MALL opens, the ‘OWNERS’ have space to let in the mall and the cost of rent in the mall is high, they have high street property and they now have mall property, the rules within malls is that there cannot be empty shops, they have to be let; short lease or otherwise; cheap for 6 months whatever. So what one will see in the malls is shops disappearing and new shops opening.

    As for the shops on the high street the owner couldn’t give a flying fig if it is empty or not, they will hold out for the highest bidder, after all they still have the property and it is still an asset, I have seen it and witnessed this for myself. I have asked to rent a property because it was empty and the owner was adamant about what the rent would be; NO LESS.

    Same goes for ‘super market’ property; SHELF space. Why sell your goods in a high street shop when you can hire space in a supermarket? The principal is the same as with malls.

    So for that reason I say ‘Malls and Supermarkets’ are the reason for the high street closures; But not for the reason people think normally.
    BEWARE though, once monopoly is guaranteed in these places prices will no longer be consumer driven. Competition driven market forces will be a thing of the past.
    Don’t believe me – check out who owns what store, more oft than not they are owned by the same group.

    Namaste, phil;

  10. December 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    From the shopkeepers’ point of view, the cost imposed by councils and through taxes generally, let alone the view of shopkeepers as people to milk for ever greater revenue for being idiot enough [in council eyes] to open a venture, it’s little wonder that, coupled with the other reasons given above, High Streets are dying.

  11. December 18, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Malls do kill off high streets. I’ve seen it happen. It’s been interesting reading the anti-high street comments here, because they are pretty much the same sentiments with which I grew up in the early 1970s — not something I expected to find in England.

    Phil is correct in his analysis. The same short shelf-life, as it were, of mall shops has always been true in the US. Also interesting is how many shops there keep moving around the same mall to smaller premises. The same will be true here, should this take root. If you own a car, can handle the parking (highly irritating at certain times of the year) and enjoy an antiseptic atmosphere, then malls are the way to go.

    However, I miss walking outdoors along an American high street (yes, some still exist) to a multi-storey department store which has been in the same place for at least 75 years and where one could do all of one’s shopping under one roof. And, as I mentioned upthread, there were all the smaller shops — as well as proper old fashioned (one-screen) cinemas — nearby.

    You don’t miss something until it’s gone.

    As for Mary Portas, it would be wonderful if she could achieve something for our high streets the way she (apparently) has on her television show — by herself, without Government intervention.

  12. nemesis
    December 19, 2011 at 11:09 am

    I think the town planners and the traffic engineers have caused these problems in the first place. If they are part of the problem they shouldnt be involved in the solution.

  13. Lord T
    December 19, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    It’s a combination imo.

    I like going to the shops and wandering around. particularly musty old book shops.
    I like the fish, meat and veg from the old shops.

    But I hate the parking charges and the difficulty in getting parked. I hate the fact that the food is so expensive and that is due to the costs. The council rates are tremendous for shops and a big cash hurdle for those wanting to start up. Plus the rent, shops base their rent on council rent and that goes up every year.

    I can find everything I want in one big shop and the fish, meat and veg are much cheaper and almost as much choice. In fact many supermarkets have expanded these sections so they are as good now, and cheaper.

    I looked at openning a shop and before you even get to open the door you have to spend or commit several thousand pounds just in rent, rates, insurance etc. That is not including the taxes, err… costs involved in the explicit venture such as washing machines or tools.

    Why take the chance to open a high street shop when those doing it for years can’t keep theirs going?

    The high street as wenow it is dying. The only people who can keep it going are you and I and I don’t want to put up with the hassle. Sorry.

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