Queen of Shops reports to the King of our ailing economy

Georgia Lewis

Image © Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills

In the midst of news reports about bumper retail sales in the lead-up to Christmas, albeit thanks largely to heavy discounting, and upsetting stories of people getting into debt in order to have a very materialistic Christmas, Mary Portas released her report on how to save Britain’s high streets. It was a curious mixture of the occasional sensible suggestion and ideas that don’t really take the big picture into account.

Local authorities using discretionary powers to give new businesses concessions on their rates makes sense. Exploring disincentives to prevent landlords leaving shops vacant makes sense. Proactive use of compulsory purchase orders on long-term vacant shops makes sense. Making banks that own empty shops manage them properly or sell them makes sense too.

But other recommendations are, frankly, a little silly. Would removing “unnecessary regulations” so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason not to result in the revival of lively market towns or would high streets attract tat sellers so that our towns will start to resemble an EastEnders street scene?

The “National Market Day” sounds lovely and romantic in principle. Only the hardest of hearts would surely be opposed to a day set aside each year for new businesses to try their hands at operating a low-cost venture. But one day is, quite simply, not enough time to test the waters and see if the business idea has legs. Everyone I know who is involved in any sort of small business venture will tell you it takes time, patience and creative marketing, especially by making the most of the internet. The future of small businesses isn’t always going to be renting a space on the high street when it’s often more cost-effective to run it from home with am internet connection at the ready.

Mary Portas’s general disdain for big malls fails to take into account why people like malls. They’re warm, the parking is usually free and plentiful, there’s no lugging of shopping onto public transport or in other cases, such as Newcastle Metro Centre, the mall is very well served for public transport, anyone with a disabled parking sticker can park near the entrance, there are usually places to eat and drink as well as shop, sometimes you can shop and catch a movie. Removing parking charges from town centres or moving supermarkets to town centres won’t necessarily change that culture – and if councils are forced to make all parking free, there’s no guarantee that services won’t be cut or the councils will find other ways to raise revenue that are even less popular than parking meters.

Then there is the constant whine that high streets are full of charity shops and pound shops. Firstly, without charity shops, there’d be even more chuggers annoying people on the street in desperate bids to raise funds in a time when people aren’t exactly donating to charities in droves. And pound shops are there because right now there is a seriously big market for them. Market forces are at work and a good capitalist like David Cameron has to appreciate that.

Instead of complaining that shops selling plastic buckets for a quid are eyesores that prevent high streets from being filled with quaint local businesses and continental-style cafes (for all those people who want to sit on the footpath and drink coffee in Britain’s weather from November to March…), the bigger picture needs to be looked at. And this is where Mary Portas’s report is so desperately lacking. In an era of rising unemployment, wage freezes and less job security, many people are not willing to buy up big at quaint little shops where the prices are usually less than competitive. Right now, people want bargains and for many, disposable income is down so they will either buy things on a needs basis rather than a wants basis – or, tragically, go into debt to try and keep up.

The bigger picture is that high streets cannot be revived unless the overall economy is revived. There has been precious little done in the way of job creation by the current government. Job creation means more people will have money to spend. Ironically, for all the soullessness of malls and big retail parks, they do create jobs. Perhaps empty shops can be repurposed into housing and help ease that particular burden for many people – at least this would provide people on site who can then use high street shops as they’ll be in walking distance.

And there’s a really big elephant in the room right now. This elephant is not just shaking his head at a glaring omission in Mary Portas’s report but also at the entire government’s gaping policy hole – there has been nothing much said about regional development, about encouraging businesses who don’t need a London head office in this age of easy communication to move elsewhere and revive local economies, about promoting areas such as the neglected north-east as great places to go into business.

But given we have a Prime Minister who this week said his biggest priority is making sure Boris Johnson remains as mayor of London and Mary Portas offering him advice that doesn’t delve deep into the essential but unglamorous world of regional development and practical ways to fight poverty, all we really have with this plan for reviving high streets is mere window dressing.

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