Mary Portas’ report to government on the state of the UK’s high streets makes many sensible points, some of which are already employed in West London, but despite saying good things about non-retail elements, fails to implicitly address them in her recommendations.
She makes 28 recommendations in her report, including the widespread use of “Town Teams”, like the one in place in Harlesden. These would aim to be “visionary, strategic and strong operational management teams for high streets” which would focus on improving access and appearance. She also suggests giving BIDs more powers, and suggests more funding for them through allowing landlords to contribute. This would be welcome in that it would give BIDs like HammersmithLondon more clout.
She proposes a general return to free controlled parking schemes, which again many west London authorities are already deploying, and which is something which can only be applauded. Foregoing parking revenues is a way councils can invest directly in their town centres.
One recommendation suggests addressing the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on high streets, but puts forward the idea of making betting shops a class of their own, presumably in order to control their proliferation. It is not clear whether she means to allow easier conversion of empty retail into homes, and it is perhaps more likely that the intention is to make it easier to convert a travel agent into a café or vice versa. However, if a by-product of such a relaxation were to allow the creation of more homes in town centres, this would be welcomed by many.
Empty shops are a target, with a wish for more penalties for landlords who leave property vacant, especially banks, advocating CPOs to get key properties back in to productive use, and other concepts such as “Community right to try”, which would allow locals to “have a go” at meanwhile uses. Unsurprisingly, landlords have received this suggestion less than enthusiastically, which highlights the tricky mix of interest whoever interprets and applies this report’ findings will have to navigate.
All these are generally useful contributions to the town centre debate, however, the focus on retail uses is strong, and the expected defence of the independent trader against the multiple runs through much of the thinking. This stout defence of the independent will certainly help maintain variety and difference from high street to high street, which is of course desirable, but will be more workable in those locations where the catchment can afford the generally higher prices.
A point Portas makes in her text is one made by Stephen Kelly of LB Harrow at October’s Place West London Conference, that high streets are more than places to shop. But although Portas says high streets need to be “‘places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities”, her recommendations deal exclusively with retail matters.
Portas says, “I believe that our high streets can be lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community. A sense of belonging which, as the recent riots clearly demonstrated, has been eroded and in some instances eradicated.”
She continues, “I also fundamentally believe that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow. I want to put the heart back into the centre of our high streets, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.”
“High streets of the future must be a hub of the community that local people are proud of and want to protect.”
This is all true. People need to come together for culture, leisure, and community purposes, and need to do those things close to where they live, work and shop. The idea of a 21st century high street which runs through much of Terry Farrell’s recent work, such as that at Earls Court, as a place where people spend their days, and can do everything they need to do, needs to be added more prominently to Portas’ sensible suggestions to enable the return the UK high street to the community asset it was in the early 20th century.