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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary...

5th April 2012, by

The appointment of Mary Portas 'The Queen of Shops' in the Summer of 2011 to conduct an independent review into the state of our high streets and town centres was a surprise to many in the property and development community.

Now that we have had time to digest the Review and the Government's Response to it, what can we make of the recommendations and the proposals that have now been put forward by the Government in its response?

Mary Portas' involvement has certainly generated some interesting headlines and raised awareness of the challenges being faced by our High Streets in the current economic. This has to be welcomed. But, if one goes beyond the headlines and the media hullaballoo, what long-term - and sustainable - effect will the Portas Review have on the future of our High Streets?

The Portas Review, when it was published in December 2011, did deliver a few headline-grabbing ideas. The Review - thankfully - avoids simplistic notions that the decline of many of our High Streets is entirely down to the growth of out-of-town retailing. Indeed, it explicitly recognises that such facilities have provided highly convenient, needs-based retailing which serve consumers well. This was also recognised in the Prime Minister's Foreword to the Government's Response. This should be welcomed as the notion of "High Street = good : out-of-town = bad" that has, for far too long, bedevilled the thinking of most policy makers for many years.

The challenge facing our High Streets is complex – and this is acknowledged. Yet, despite the contributions from the array of participants to the Review, it has largely failed to deliver a genuinely coherent analysis of the problem and, as a result, a set of meaningful, and deliverable series of recommendations for a way forward.

The Review is also riddled with inconsistencies. For example, the criticism that retailers are overburdened with red tape may be well-founded, yet the Portas recommendations seems to include the creation of a whole new array of bureaucracy and administration – in the form of 'super' BIDs, Parking League Tables, Contracts of Care, Registers of Landlords, Empty Shop Management Orders, to name a few.

Portas also appears keen that the planning system adopts a more permissive approach to change of use. This, in our view, has to be welcomed as, for too long, authorities have sought to control commercial uses in many High Streets. In doing so they have sought to 'protect' retail uses in individual units or parades for which there is little or no demand - to the detriment of the health and attractiveness of the centre. This permissiveness does not, however, extend to betting shops, where Portas advocates greater control. This recommendation bears many similarities to the previous Administration's attempt to use the planning process to control wider social issues such as 'anti-social' behaviour and binge drinking through revisions of the Use Classes Order. In our opinion this is both perverse and takes planning beyond its principle remit of regulating land use into areas that are best controlled through other alternative licencing regimes.

The approach recommended towards the provision of improved and/or cheaper car parking for shoppers may be popular amongst retailers and shoppers. It is certainly not something Chase & Partners would contest. On the other hand, it sits rather uncomfortably with the Government's wider 'sustainability' agenda about reducing the need to travel and indiscriminate use of the private car, limiting carbon emission, accelerating climate change, etc.

Overall we believe that many of the recommendations in the Review are neither new nor radical. The deliverability of the few that are is, in our opinion, questionable (for example possible disincentives to prevent landlords leaving shops vacant, requirements for banks who own high street property to either administer or dispose of these assets, 'Empty Shop Management Orders' and a public register of landlords).

On the positive side both the Review and the Government Response support the formation of town teams. These place the business of town centres at the heart of the community. With their fragmented profiles and many conflicting needs, if town centres are to become the generators of economic growth they must be treated like any other business. If town teams can grapple with the complex relationships and activities, give them an upgraded profile and integrate them, this surely must be the best way of making town centres the hub of local economies. The question is whether the monies and skill-based resource the Government is prepared to commit will be appropriate and sufficient to create a dynamic management which can produce the returns for their town. They already have stiff competition which will only increase as the economy gets tougher and innovation gathers pace.

The Government has been at pains to stress how it has accepted "nearly all" the Portas Recommendations and, in some cases (notably through the High Street Innovation Fund) wishes to now go further. This is encouraging. One of the few recommendations that was rejected was the idea that the Communities Secretary should use his 'call in' powers more frequently on out-of-town schemes to assess their impact on town centres and have an exceptional 'sign off' for such proposals. Chase & Partners welcome the fact that this recommendation has been rejected. To accept it would be entirely contrary to the Government's 'localism' agenda and its aim to devolve responsibility for decision making to local planning authorities wherever possible. At least it is being consistent!