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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The high street: not just for Christmas shopping

Goodness knows what David Cameron expected when he asked Mary Portas to chair a review looking at the future of the high street. After all, retail analysis is something of a cottage industry in what was once a nation of shopkeepers – and plenty of others have written about the decline of the town centre. But as a justly popular TV presenter, Ms Portas may have been seen by No 10 as a short cut to headlines and photos with only mildly sarcastic captions. This wouldn't have been the first time a prime minister tried to borrow the halo of celebrity, as Tanya Byron and Alan Sugar might testify.

In this case, however, the Queen of Shops has done that rather dangerous thing within government: produced an argument that might not have been choreographed with civil servants and rehearsed to death. Her report does not come with the usual well-worn edges and death-by-chart overdose that too often marks government-backed reviews. It is written and argued with welcome directness, and it takes aim at a couple of key government policies. The deregulation of planning laws so beloved of Eric Pickles and George Osborne get a neat stilettoing; Ms Portas rightly calls for our planning regime to give preference to preserving town centres. She has other smart ideas, too, such as encouraging those who have never set up a retail business to give it a go.

Most importantly of all, Ms Portas gets it. She sees that the high street is not only a centre for shopping, but is the heart of any community. It is a place to meet and socialise, and a site for amenities. For those who are less mobile, who can't afford to drive or who simply don't want to communicate with the world only through a broadband connection, the town centre is of vital importance. For commuters or those happier to rifle through Amazon (obligatory note: other websites are available), it can still be both useful and a place that provides crucial social connections. Put simply, it is a public good, rather than merely a place of commerce.

Accept that argument – that this is about preserving communities, not just independent retailers – and you enter a field of debate far wider and marshier than any short review can justly navigate. Take the issue of parking, which is surely the biggest bane of would-be town shoppers. It is simply easier to go to a giant warehouse by a dual carriageway, as you will get free parking for as long as you might reasonably want. Town halls are so reliant on Whitehall for funding that those ferocious meter-watchers are, ludicrously, one of the vital ways for them to raise money.

Then there is the problem of rent. Especially in the south-east, land is so overpriced that any new landlord is obliged to charge tenants eye-popping sums – prohibitively high for most independent businesses. Cue chain-store domination. When it comes to pubs and clubs, the concentration of ownership, along with the fact that their holding companies are often loaded up with debt, means that cheapness and local experimentation are an expensive luxury.

These are not new problems. As Ms Portas acknowledges, the likes of the New Economics Foundation raised them nearly a decade ago. Since that time, big-box retailers have spread across Britain, and the economy has entered a prolonged slump that means any project to regenerate high streets is going to be more wishful than practical. To get towards a solution, we need to acknowledge two things: that protecting high streets is a matter for public policy, rather than only for markets to take their course; and that the town centre of 2021 will have to be more mixed – taking in community centres and nurseries alongside shops and post offices. To do that will require more co-ordinated planning, not less. And it will necessitate local government intervening in the running of local chain stores too, to require that they source goods and labour locally.


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