These New Portas Pilot Towns…

Portas Pilot Towns - Illustration by Dermott FlynnPeople of certain  generations still have fond memories of the High Streets. I for one recall going to the toy shop or the sweet shop as a child and these two types of stores are a rare sign in our towns these days.

Why is that? Well, there are a number of factors. One big one is the rise of the supermarkets. Once upon a time supermarkets were just another store in the high street, albeit often a bigger shopfront than the others. They sold “the usual” foodstuffs and not much else.

Nowadays they have their own toy sections and sweet aisles, an in-store bakery and a butchers, a pharmacist, sometimes an optician’s, a home furnishings section, clothing, electric goods and now even banks.

With this massive increase in offerings, supermarkets started moving “out of town” or buying even bigger plots on the edges of towns, even buying up large blocks of “brown field” land in town centres.

With their wealth of offerings and their economies of scale, the big stores offer a wide range of goods at reasonable prices. You can get everything you want “under one roof” and often the car park outside is free too. By diversifying and offering almost everything a modern consumer might need, the supermarkets seem to have, for want of a better word “taken over”.

The traditional high street shops have suffered against this wave of retail innovations and, without the financial or institutional clout, the independent stores have dwindled. Here in Farnborough town centre, in Queensmead, for instance, there is no longer a butcher’s shop, a carpet shop or a photographic/art supplies shop. These all closed down. But you can get some art supplies and a few digital cameras in the nearby new supermarket, which also has a butcher’s counter. There is a carpet shop on a new strip mall on the outskirts of the town centre, but it’s no longer an independent but part of a big national chain.

Taking a good look at our town centre the other week I calculated that the big names outnumbered the independents by a factor of 3 to 1 and, on top of that, we have 14 empty retail units standing idle.

Step in, Mary Portas

So with the changing face of high street shopping, what hope is there for the schemes of Mary Portas and her drive to reinvigorate our traditional town centres?

Yesterday 15 more Portas Pilots were announced, each being a high street shopping area in desperate need of some sort of renovation. Winning their share of a multi-million pound pot, each Portas Pilot has a Town Team that takes the money and allocates it to a project to restore and rejuvenate the retail area.

Morecambe in Lancashire, a place where I have spent much of my time as a child, is one of  the latest successful bidders is now a Portas Pilot Town. Morecambe has very high shop vacancy rates and the Town Team is looking beyond the retail aspect to have a new community café. This new social focal point will also provide advice and support to local businesses and offer training too. The profits from the venture will be ploughed back into the local community to assist in the area’s regeneration.

Other towns have different ideas – Tiverton in Devon, being a little too close to nearby Exeter, is to build a coach park to encourage shoppers in. Lowestoft in Suffolk will introduce business mentoring and a local loyalty scheme. Ashford, Kent, aims to invigorate its market with a new “stall for a tenner” scheme. Brighton’s London Road retail area will be tackling crime & vandalism and encouraging new businesses into empty shops.

The total amount of cash available to these Portas Pilot towns is reported to be £5.5 million. All 27 winners so far will receive £100,000 each – That still leaves £2.8 million in the pot. I’m not sure if we’ll be expecting another round of Portas Pilot results but Local Government Minister, Grant Shapps, has said he still wants the runners up to establish Town Teams. At the very least, the remaining 392 Town Teams will be able to meet with the 27 Portas Pilots and see, first hand, how they’re getting on.

Will These Portas Pilot Towns Work?

Who knows? But we can’t just let our high streets fall into rack and ruin. Our nearby town of Aldershot applied to be a Portas Pilot Town. Results? Computer says no. The once-proud “Home of the British Army” has declined massively over the last few decades. The Army has moved brigades out to other garrison towns and there have been a number of unsuccessful regeneration attempts already. The Galleries, an extension to the Wellington Centre only a few years ago, lies virtually empty. Rushmoor Borough Council’s CEO, Andrew Lloyd, said he didn’t want another “faceless” town and yet the big brands are moving in on yet another new development, Aldershot’s new Westgate.

So is it the “supermarket effect” or is there something else thwarting the return of independent high street stores? Ben Dyer, CEO of e-commerce firm SellerDeck, seems to think so. Whilst applauding Mary Portas’ intentions he’s firmly backed the “online high street”. Dyer condemned the traditional high street as being obsolete and that the future is digital. But then he would, wouldn’t he.

As a professional spending my own working life in cyberspace, and a great deal of my leisure time online too, I appreciate Dyer’s angle on the digital future. But then let’s go to his extreme: What if all shopping were done online and the high street, as was widely talked about years ago, really does die? Where would people really meet and interact? Where would hubs and centres of communities actually be? Would they exist?

Online shopping is great for many products but nothing beats the bustle of the high street; people watching, the smells of fresh produce on a market stall, having a real time chat with a friendly vendor about his story and his wares.

Humans are social creatures and digital social media just doesn’t quite cut it as a full interaction with fellows of the species. Ben’s right that online retailers should be assisted and encouraged but our high streets ALSO still need to be cared for.

So will these Portas Pilots work? Only time will tell. I do hope they will make a positive impact on our town centres otherwise we’ll all be “gathering round” our respective screens and talking about what we’ve read the weather is like.

By is4profit editor Paul Mackenzie Ross

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