Seven per cent – that’s how much of the £10 million High Street Innovation Fund, set up last year to bring empty shops back into use, has been spent to date.
The figures come from a Freedom of Information request by Paul Turner-Mitchell, an independent retailer, who appears to be on a one-man fact finding mission on all things High Street policy related - his earlier FOI revealed that just 12 per cent of the £1.2 million money assigned to Portas Town Teams had been spent to date. His investigations also reveal how the money has been spent to date. In Dartford, £1,600 was used to hire a man in Peppa Pig costume.
Whilst understandable, Mr Turner-Mitchell’s displeasure at how much of this money has been spent to date, and how it has been used, misses the point. Regular visitors to this blog will be aware of Centre for Cities’ view on the Portas Review, as detailed here.
In short, a focus on retail alone is far too narrow to solve the malaise of the High Street. Retailers need sustained footfall. Unfortunately no end of grant spent on bunting and flower pots is going to deliver this. In the majority of instances the steadiest source of footfall past the doors of High Street retailers is likely to be by non-retail workers. But the Portas Review completely ignores this fact, and so too have a raft of studies published on the back of it.
The latest to do so is the London Assembly Economic Committee’s report on empty shops, published earlier this week. At the launch event, London Assembly Member Andrew Dismore, Chair of the Economic Committee, remarked that it is the outer lying High Streets of London that are struggling in particular, and it is these places that require specific attention from London policymakers to reverse their retail fortunes.
It’s worth reflecting on this point for a second to show why something that is well intended is ultimately misguided. A key economic role played by Outer London Boroughs, as shown in our report Size Matters, is to ‘export’ workers to business-rich central London. This means that the population of central London swells massively during standard trading hours, as illustrated in the infographic below (with thanks to Alasdair Rae - see his excellent blog). And so too does the potential market for retailers – this large in-migration of people every day provides them with punters to sell their wares to.
It is because of these commuting patterns that retailers such as Pret thrive in Central London. There are 193 Pret stores in the capital, the highest of any city in the UK (the next highest is Birmingham, with five). Where are these Prets located? 80 per cent are in the Inner London Boroughs. And almost 60 per cent are in Westminster, Islington and the City of London alone.
London’s core has been strengthening in recent years – more and more of the capital’s businesses are choosing to locate and is likely to continue to do so as density becomes ever more important for knowledge based businesses. This, coupled with the on-going national economic malaise and the rise of internet shopping, means that for many Outer London High Streets retail is likely to be inappropriate as a response for reversing their fortunes. Instead policymakers in London should be thinking about what other uses are suitable for these areas.
What does this mean for cities more generally? Retail thrives where footfall is concentrated. This means that, particularly in cities where we have seen a dispersal of economic activity in recent years, any attempts to revive ailing retail-dominated High Streets should be thinking about how they can encourage a concentration of economic activity in their city centres. While not the only required response – tourism, residential and leisure also have a role to play - only when this has occurred will bunting and flower pots have any sort of impact.
We should worry less about Portas money not being spent – its approach means that the money is likely to have little impact even if it had been used. This could even be a blessing in disguise – at least it gives the opportunity for it to be recalled and spent on something a little more sensible. Instead we should be thinking about how to support growth in underperforming city centres. The Centre for Cities will be investigating this in more detail in the coming months.Follow Paul on twitter - @paul_swinney