Portas issues warning to high street

Retail expert Mary Portas has issued a stark warning to the high street, saying that shops need to provide something new if they want to compete in the changing face of British retail.

Portas was commissioned by the government to conduct an independent review on the future of UK town centres and high street. Publishing her review today (13 December), she has come up with 28 points which she believes will create sustainable high streets of the future.  

While she said that the retail landscape of the UK has changed beyond recognition in recent years, she pointed out the major supermarkets and malls had delivered convenient needs-based shopping and that high streets had failed to adapt quickly or effectively. She also noted that the increase of online and mobile technology commerce had altered the way UK consumers shop, as well as raising their expectations.

She said: “The days of a high street populated simply by independent butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers are, except in the most exceptional circumstances, over.”

“New expectations have been created in terms of value, service, entertainment and experience against which the average high street has, in many cases, failed to deliver.”

“Doing business on the high street needs to be a more attractive and economically viable option than it is at the moment.

"To give the town centre a fighting chance against out-of-town developments, we need to go back to basics, with business rates that work for business, decent parking and no unnecessary restrictions.”

However, although she believes there are instances of out-of-town retailers draining the traffic and shopping trade from town centres, she said it was naive and too simple to blame them for the decline of the high street.

Among the measures she would like to see introduced are a ‘town team’, made up of local people, businesses, landlords and local authorities, who would coordinate a strategic vision for the high street, coordinating the planning and operations to make high streets run more like businesses. She argued that it should be easier for businesses to operate in town centres if some of the current red tape was tackled, including taxes, rates, rents, contracts, planning regulations, parking and deliveries and encouraging landlords to use empty properties to encourage innovation and investment.

Portas would also like to see greater collaboration from stakeholders, giving communities a greater say in high streets and introduce changes that would level the playing field to help provide choice and balance for consumers.

She said: “We need a more sophisticated understanding of what a good deal for consumers is, looking beyond simply price-based considerations to include community wellbeing and long-term sustainability.

The retail sector has largely welcomed Portas’ suggestions.

Mintel’s director of retail Richard Perks said: “Mary Portas is absolutely spot-on when she says that high streets that want to survive must invest. Ideas such as more markets are excellent, because they add more excitement to the high street. No-one owes a retailer a living. No-one owes a high street a living. Consumers go to where they are best served – and that is as true of retailers as it is of high streets. A high street that gets no investment has no future.”

However he denied that the high street was in terminal decline, blaming the current contraction “almost entirely” on the recession.

He said: “The vacancy rates we hear so much about are mostly in secondary and tertiary sites because. when high streets contract. there is a general move to primary sites. But people still want to shop – that’s why major shopping centres are so successful. And what is a development like Westfield’s at Stratford but a brand new high street?”

While the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said the sentiment of the report – and many of the proposals – were in line with the BRC’s own high streets rescue plan ‘21st Century High Streets’, it questioned some of Portas’ suggestions, including any restrictions on new out-of-town development or penalising out-of-town parking, and any moves towards an affordable shop quota.

Director general Stephen Robertson said: “We absolutely agree that high streets make a unique contribution to local neighbourhoods and economies, providing jobs and services and building a sense of community. We’re delighted that Mary Portas recognises that town centres need to evolve as quickly as customer demands change if they’re to remain relevant.   

“The report sets out some practical ways to address problems faced by the UK’s high streets, many of which go back much further than the economic difficulties of the last few years. Prioritising action on business rates and parking is exactly right. These are the key concerns for customers and retailers.  

“This plan should be about supporting a rich mix of retailing, not striking dividing lines between big names and independents or town centre and others. When he acts on this report, David Cameron should not restrict that choice by making life harder for any particular category of retailers.” 

However, he added that: “Requiring an affordable shops quota is unnecessarily restrictive and could tip the balance against some new developments being built. The market must be able to react to shoppers’ needs.”  
The government is due to respond to Portas's suggestions in the spring.

If you have any views on Portas's suggestions, do let us know. The full Portas Review is available online.


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