Mary Portas Calls for Action to Inject Dynamism into High Street Commercial Property

Posted on 16 December, 2011 by Neil Bird

The first thing Mary Portas discovered when she was asked to conduct an independent review of the decline of the UK high street was that several had already been published. Indeed there have been a number over recent years each containing various recommendations that have never been implemented. However what persuaded her to accept the commission was that on this occasion the request came from Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg.

Portas has spent the past seven months consulting a range of concerned bodies. She has spoken to both large and small retailers, councils and representatives of associations and organizations. She has also met with commercial property landlords and received over 2000 online submissions from individuals relating their own experience and offering advice.  The result is The Portas Report which contains a raft of 28 recommendations designed to breathe life back into the high street.

One of the first things Portas stresses is that it is not her intention to point the finger of blame. We are where we are, she asks us to accept. The statistics she lays before us are familiar. The commercial property vacancy rate in our town centres has doubled over the past two years and the drift of shoppers away from the high street has risen by 50%. “How we shop as a nation has changed beyond recognition. For ever,” Portas warns. The only question she asks is, where do we go from here?

Portas believes that town centres have been slow to react to changing consumer habits. Shoppers have migrated to shopping malls and out of town commercial property developments, that offer the kind of retail experience the high street can no longer provide. But she also believes that the high street is capable of transforming itself into an exciting and dynamic place that consumers will want to return to. This, she insists, can only be achieved through urgent collaborative action.

For this reason she calls for the establishment of strategic management teams to oversee the necessary changes. Among her other recommendations, Portas calls for changes in business rates and concessions from councils to assist small and independent outlets. She wants to see free town centre parking and the introduction of a National Market Day. In addition she proposes the introduction of disincentives to prevent commercial property landlords leaving units vacant.

The British Property Federation (BPF) has broadly welcomed the majority of recommendations contained in the Portas Report and called on the government to implement them. However Chief Executive, Liz Peace questions the recommendation concerning vacant properties, suggesting that Portas doesn’t fully understand the complexities of the problem. “No landlord would deliberately leave a property empty,” she says. “It makes no economic sense and simply sucks investment from high streets.” The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) is also unhappy with a proposal to limit their presence in low income areas.

So will the Portas Report suffer the same fate as those before it and begin to gather dust after the initial interest has died down? Well the fact that it was commissioned by the highest levels of government may see it taken more seriously. It also comes four months after the summer riots, during which many high street commercial property bore the brunt of the unrest. Finally there is the Portas factor. As politicians have demonstrated in the past, they are not immune to the power of a celebrity and may see the benefits of being associated with such a high profile figure. The high street, which Portas believes has reached crisis point, will be hoping this is the case.

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