Let’s hear it for the Queen of Shops

On a sleety December day in Wakefield or Wigan, Weston-super-Mare or Wisbech, a walk down the high street amid hard-up Christmas shoppers is a long way from most people’s idea of a good time.

Today Mary Portas, TV’s Queen of Shops and the retail guru appointed by David Cameron to revive our high streets, is delivering her verdict. Can our sad and declining town centres be turned around with a bit of stardust and glamour?

When the news came out back in May, I was a little sceptical. So what spell did the Queen of Shops weave to make me change my mind?

It’ll take more than street furniture to change our high streets

The starting point was that I got involved in the discussion. I contacted a few people who I knew were doing good stuff in town centres because I thought the review should listen to people who are thinking differently. I wanted the review team to understand that high streets could become exciting places even for people whose idea of retail therapy is to get as far away from it as possible.

Within a few weeks I’d brought together nine organisations to submit evidence to the high street review. We called for the reinvention of the high street as a ‘21st century agora’ – a market for social interaction and ideas, not just for goods and services. We said the high street needs to be multifunctional, rooted in the unique talents of the local community.

A subsequent meeting with Mary Portas’s team suggested she not only understood what we were were proposing, but appreciated the extent of the challenge. By September I was feeling much more positive about the review’s prospects.

But there’s a mountain to climb. A weighty review of the evidence, published alongside the high street review and commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, shows how much has changed since out-of-town shopping burst onto the scene in the 1980s: as far as shopping is concerned, town centres are now a minority interest. Most of our retail floorspace is out of town and most shopping out of town or online.

A generation has grown up on the convenience of car-based supermarkets and retail parks, where everything is under one roof, the environment is safe and clean, and you know what you’re getting. As a team of academics recently put it, this has become ‘the hegemonic retail format’. It may be bad for the local economy and for the environment, but people aren’t going to suddenly change because someone says they should shop locally.

The good news is that the review has a recipe for a happier high street – and it’s one that echoes and builds on our suggestions. It’s to think of the high street as a social space, not just as a space to buy or sell. It needs to be a place that caters for all a community needs, from civic facilities such as libraries and learning centres to parks and green space, entertainment and culture, and places to start and grow businesses.

As credit crunch turns to spending crunch, we all need to be involved in making the most of our town centres, ensuring that every place is a place of activity. That means letting the local community create the vision, as in Brentford High Street or Chippenham; ensuring artists and makers can find space to showcase their work, as pioneered by the Empty Shops Network and Meanwhile Space; and valuing and prioritising local ownership and produce

It also means, as Mary Portas has suggested, supporting distinctive local markets where people can test new products and ideas at a low cost. It means creating town teams who can bring different parties to the table and get them involved in the future of their centre; and it’s why we need a renewed focus on ‘town centres first’ planning policies that support local character and activity.

There is much that central government can do to make the most of Mary Portas’s recommendations. But the real challenge is for towns and cities to take the lead, working with local residents to develop a vision everybody can share in.

If local councils want town centres to thrive, they need to find out how people feel about them and do something about it – whether it’s developing a local smartcard that rewards people for supporting local shops and community activity, like WiganPlus, or staging a free music festival, like Sheffield’s Tramlines, or helping community organisations to take over key spaces, like Hebden Bridge Town Hall.

As the new economics foundation argues, this is about putting money back into the local economy. But it’s more than that: it’s also about creating a sense of local pride and a return to local ownership, where assets are held by local people and organisations and used for local benefit.

Austerity shouldn’t mean years of misery. Town centres should become places where we have a good time and play a part in community life without having to come away laden with shopping bags – and what better time to start than when people are hard up?

• You can read more about our submission to the high street review here, or download the full document. There’s also a short presentation on Slideshare. To join a network of people who want to develop new ideas for town centres, visit and look out for updates in the new year.