The anticipated Portas Review of the High Street has been published today. And it is not short on ideas – it proposes 28 measures to “save” the High Street. The problem is that the study’s narrow focus means that these recommendations are unlikely to make much of a (positive) difference.
Some of the proposed measures seem very reasonable. Portas calls for increased accessibility, attractiveness and safety of High Streets and improved provision of parking. The introduction of “town teams” might help High Streets to be better managed if their responsibilities are defined properly. And the proposed initiatives to encourage small businesses are also commendable.
But a closer look at the Review reveals several underlying problems. Henry Overman has already pointed out that a call for reduced regulation of some parts of the High Street (such as freedoms around market trading) stands next to proposition of more red tape in others (such as forcing large retailers to support local business). And the desire to re-empower the community contradicts the fact that the poorest community members might suffer the most as higher burdens are put on chain stores that provide better variety of products at lower prices.
The biggest flaw in the report is that it treats retail sector as though it is isolated from the rest of the economy. But vibrant city centres are more than just shops. High Street retailers are dependent on footfall generated not only by Saturday shoppers but also weekday workers. The problem is that the lack of relative scale of some city centres, such as Preston and Sunderland, mean that they have a relatively small proportion of total jobs in their cities. And it is this issue that is likely to have the largest impact on city centre retail.
It is this narrow focus that has led to proposal of the most controversial recommendation in the report that the Secretary of State should give “exceptional sign off” to all out-of-town developments. The assumption made here is that shops that would otherwise have set up out of town will now choose to locate in the city centre. The reality is much less clear and such a recommendation could serve to actually restrict overall city growth. Businesses should be encouraged to choose a city centre location because it is the most profitable place to set up, not because they are forced into a second best choice.
Portas would like to return many of the UK’s faded High Streets back to their former glory. Even setting aside changes to consumer behaviour, failing to understand that High Streets are part of wider city centre ecology will likely undermine her efforts.