A £10m government fund set up over a year ago to help bring vacant shops back into use has hardly been used. The High Street Innovation Fund was part of the government’s answer to Mary Portas’ review of the High Street.
However Freedom of Information requests seen by the BBC suggest that only 7 per cent of the money in the fund has in fact been spent.
The money was given to 100 councils with the worst affected high streets in England.
The government said it would prefer it if the money was spent strategically and sensibly rather than used without thought.
The Freedom of Information requests were put forward by the independent retailer, Paul Turner-Mitchell, who also contributed to Ms Portas’ High Street review.
Of the 72 councils that replied, 47 said they hadn’t spent a penny. So far, just £519,363.22 out of £7.2m has been spent -around 7 per cent.
Mr Turner-Mitchell said it was infuriating that money remained in council bank accounts when there was a crisis on the High Street.
He said: “Looking at these figures you can only conclude that councils are either complacent about the problems on the high street or they simply don’t know what to do about it.
“Either way, ministers need to look at ways of getting high street funding out to the coalface much quicker.”
Councils maintain that it’s more important getting things right than how quickly the money’s being spent.
Wyre Forest District Council has spent £12,000 on bringing 10 vacant shops back into use.
According to Mr Turner-Mitchell some of the other projects have been less than inspiring. For example, one council spent £10,900 on Christmas lights, while another spent £10,038 on a train station access ramp.
Meanwhile, Swale Borough Council in Kent spent £164.60 on a snow machine.
In response Turner-Mitchell said: “It’s hardly what Mary Portas would call game-changing stuff. It’s very worrying seeing an innovation fund being used for tired, unoriginal ideas.”
Swale council said much of its money had yet to be distributed. And it said it was working to encourage footfall and improve the abandoned high street in the town of Sheerness.
Critics will also argue that when it comes to restoring town centres, £100,000 is small beer, given the scale of the challenges.
This is the second wave of Freedom of Information requests presented by Mr Turner-Mitchell.
Previously, he learnt that the 12 so-called Portas Pilot towns had spent just 12 per cent of the £1.2m. This was the first set of town centres to obtain taxpayers’ money to test out some of Ms Portas’ ideas.
A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to reviving the nation’s high streets which is why we gave the 100 councils with the highest numbers of empty properties a share of £10m to attract new businesses into their areas.
“We’ve also given local authorities powers to offer business rate discounts and have simplified planning restrictions to allow new businesses to set up on high streets.
“We would rather councils spend this money strategically and wisely, to ensure long term success for our high streets, than rush to spend it and waste taxpayers’ money in the process.”
UK Firms Win Contracts for Rio 2016