The Portas Review, one year on

To mark the first anniversary of the publication of the Portas Review, AMT and Urban Pollinators have brought together a range of collaborators to reflect on town centre progress and problems.

High streets and town centres remain firmly on the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments’ agendas. It’s encouraging that so much local action is taking place and that people are starting to take ownership of the agenda, but this still needs to be translated into visions for change at a national and at local levels – what we do have is not yet adequate.

There are multiple interests at work in town centres and there will inevitably be conflicts. These need to be managed in ways that support local economies and encourage local entrepreneurship.

There is a high risk that the goodwill generated through the Portas Review will be lost if action to support town centres is undermined by public funding cuts, poor planning decisions and business decisions that fail to take the wider context into account.

Town centres continue to face significant challenges; many remain in crisis. The Portas Review is just a first step; now central and local government need to become more focused and develop realistic long term ambitions for town centres. And towns need to embrace every opportunity they can to take control of their futures.

Portas one year on covers progress of the Portas pilots, ‘town centres first’, retail evolution (and innovation), neighbourhood planning and community rights, empty shops, business rates, and going ‘beyond Portas.’

Our writers aren’t just ‘thinkers’. They may be idealistic but they’re realistic. All – just like AMT – are actively engaged in real projects; all are pragmatic; all understand the need for communities to shape the future of their towns and high streets; all can see value in the Government’s Portas response – but all paint a clear picture of what needs to happen next.

So looking to the future, our Portas one year on pieces cover:

1 – Town Centre First WATCH. AMT’s Chris Wade says that now is a time for clear national and local leadership to apply the revised Town Centre First policy. Rigorous application of the policy is crucial to the future of many small towns and our new campaign, “Town-Centre-First WATCH,” launches this month.

2 – consumer revolution, retail evolution, innovation The high street and its retail businesses need to embrace new technologies as a practical way to increase sales, says Clare Rayner. But innovation doesn’t need to cost high streets and retailers money. Indie retail campaigns are re-connecting businesses with local people. Now the Government must recognise their responsibility isn’t to offer hand-outs to encourage innovation but to ensure that they level the playing field to allow entrepreneurial businesses to compete in a market that in recent years has become dominated by large brands and online giants.

3 – planning policy has its limits, say Alison Eardley and Euan Mills, but neighbourhood planning can foster engagement between community and high street. And development orders and use classes need to be considered as blunt tools that can shape the future of a town centre too. But will Government deliver joined-up policies that put communities back at the heart of decision-making?

4 – empty space is not just a blight, but a resource to explore alternatives. Meanwhile space projects test ideas – with an acceptance that failure is an acceptable outcome – and can allow creative ideas to flourish, says Eddie Bridgeman. And Dan Thompson shows us that although pop ups and empty shops have come to be part of the same agenda to many people, they’re not. “Pop up is a way of life and a method of working that has been around for some time, which just happens to have become more noticeable because of the recession.”

5 –  Paul Turner-Mitchell provides a clear explanation of why the business rates issue – a “flawed and outdated business rate mode that now damages the high street” – is of such importance. You might be shocked by Paul’s figures showing just how tilted the playing field really is against high street retailers.

6 – in a response entitled from ‘me’ towns to ‘we’ towns and building on all of our contributors’ work and reflecting concerns and suggestions raised by AMT and from his own experiences, Julian Dobson weaves together 3 key challenges and 3 key opportunities for town centres – and adds long terms ambitions and thoughts on how to achieve these.

Lastly, let’s reflect on the progress of the Portas Pilots themselves – the 27 towns chosen in 2 competitive funding rounds which received up to £100,000 to setup and implement Town Teams. In a piece in New Start, Clare Cummings says that “key to the success of the town team pilots is swift and effective engagement”; “town teams need to bring often competing factions together to create a forum for decision-making and action; after six months some areas are still struggling to establish effective partnerships and gain consensus for change”; but “the town teams are off to a productive and pro-active start” and “The activities of town teams are acting as a catalyst for future town development, bringing previously latent ideas to fruition.”

The Portas Pilots are a welcome and high profile experiment to show what can be achieved at a local level.  On this, the anniversary of the publication of Mary Portas’ Review, the contributors here make the point that such local action has to happen within the context of wider national and systemic change and that central and local government must demonstrate focused, informed and long term leadership to build on the foundations that have been laid.

Read the Portas One year on reflections:

  1. Town Centre First WATCH
  2. consumer revolution, retail evolution, innovation
  3. planning and community rights in a post-Portas world
  4. empty shops, and a pop up paradox
  5. taxing the high street out of existence?
  6. from me towns to we towns – a vision of the future