Mary Portas has defied critics on her crusade to revitalise the high street. John Ryan joins her in one of the Portas Pilot Towns.
Flak, lots of it, has been flying whenever the word Portas has been mentioned over the past 12 months. And for those who might be inclined to say that Portas is a name, not a proper noun, the word is chosen advisedly. Mary Portas, TV star, brand marketing and communications chief and the individual requested by the Government to conduct a review of the UK high street has, of late, become as much a brand as person, or so it seems. For some she is the physical embodiment of a high-street saviour, while others have been quick to criticise the proposals contained in her report and subsequent follow-up, arguing they amount to little more than flimflam.
The truth is probably a matter of perception and position – dependent on which part of the country you happen to be in and whether you are a high-street retailer or not. Last Saturday, Portas was in Liskeard, Cornwall. It is one of the 12 ‘Portas Pilot Towns’ announced in May, a set of relatively down-at-heel locations, in terms of their retail activity and high streets at least.
She was in the town to stage a big clean-up and to kick-start a range of activities and action aimed at regenerating the high street. It is fair at this point, to report that she was also being filmed while doing so, but that does not devalue what was being undertaken, whatever the critics might say.
Liskeard itself is a small town of 7,000 just off the A38, the road that connects Plymouth and Bodmin. With the exception of well-known discount retailer Trago Mills, which is just a short way outside the town, that is probably all that most people will know about the place. It is, to an extent, on the road to nowhere in particular.
As such, it thrives or withers on the strength of its immediate hinterland and according to town councillor Bruce Hawken, it is the latter that has been apparent in the town for some time: “We’re in a bit of a dip at the moment. Over the last two years, the recession has hit us hard in this area.”
A quick glance around the small town centre bears out Hawken’s words. There are a few empty shops and a number of charity outlets. There are also a disproportionately large number of small independent shops selling everything from fireplaces to bric-a-brac. But money has clearly not been diverted from the main east-west A30 trunk road as holidaymakers hurry towards the relatively distant fleshpots of St Ives, Newquay and Rock.
All of which makes it perfect urban makeover territory. Ripe therefore for Portas to do her ‘saving the high street’ thing. And last Saturday, following a series of orchestrated arrangements with the ‘town team’, a band of concerned volunteers, traders and townsfolk, who want to see a regenerated Liskeard, the big clean-up day arrived.
Following a very mixed reception at Margate in August, another of the Portas Pilots, any accusation that this is about personal PR is swiftly rebutted: “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says Portas. “They think it’s all about PR. But what PR is there in this for me? Putting yourself in the lion’s den, what possible PR is there in that? I certainly wouldn’t advise anybody to do it. I do this because I really believe in it.” She continues: “I’ve been travelling this country for five years now and if we don’t do something about our high streets, then who knows what will happen?”
She is equally adamant about the way that retail business rates have been handled by the current government: “The rates thing is bloody shocking. Shocking. And the government still continues to allow out-of-town building to carry on. All of it, the government will tell you, is about localism. But everything will be done by local and central Government to bring money in and therefore doing anything longer term is just not going to happen.”
Portas admits to feeling “disillusioned” at times, but is keen to emphasise the need to do something, challenging her detractors to answer the question “what are you doing” about the high street?
Down and dirty
For Liskeard, on the day of her visit that meant that teams wearing sweatshirts were mopping, cleaning and scrubbing, with a jumpsuited Portas leading the charge. There was also the matter of local retail involvement. Alan Yeo, regional operations manager of The Co-op in this part of the country, outlined what the retailer is doing as part of the drive to revitalise Liskeard. “We’re trying to do something about the parking, which is expensive and we’re starting home delivery on November 12 for shoppers spending more than £25. We’ve also got an empty shop in the town and we’re letting the town have it for a year.”
This will be used as an indoor pannier market, complementing the recently established outdoor market, which seemed to be doing a brisk trade on the day of visiting.
There is also, as Portas is trying to establish in each of the towns where she is involved, a ‘town shop’ – premises that will act as a focal point for the establishment of new trading and community enterprises for Liskeard. And contractors wearing hard hats and high-visibility vests were hard at work readying the interior for business occupation.
Peter Cross, Mary Portas’ business partner, stresses that “almost no money” has been spent on getting what is happening up and running. This is perhaps hardly surprising, given the parsimonious sums that were allocated to the Portas Pilots by then local government minister Grant Shapps earlier this year. Yet in spite of the lack of financial resource, there is clearly no lack of will do something about a small town that has been dying on its feet for a while.
Now it is up to the town to try to maintain the enthusiasm that was evident on an admittedly sunny morning. Whether that is a realistic ambition when the rain falls, and the shiny granite that forms the building material of so many of Liskeard’s structures is a dour grey, is a moot point. The point perhaps is that it is pretty straightforward to come up with criticism, but quite difficult to do anything that will make a difference, although shops such as Boots and the Co-op are clearly making an effort.
And on this matter, Portas says that she does not know what the future will hold. She says that acting on the recommendations of her report has proved something of a poisoned chalice and that many friends and acquaintances had counselled against the course that she has taken. “It’s taken half of my time, but I am not doing it on behalf of the Government. I am trying to do something for people in towns that are in trouble. Sometimes it’s been really horrible.”
Whatever your view, visiting Liskeard a week ago was a surprise. Cornwall is statistically the poorest county in the UK and while there are pockets of real affluence along its coast, inland the story is entirely different. Liskeard, and places like it, need some help if they are not to become desolate, tumbleweed destinations, unloved and unvisited. Portas continues to make the case for doing something now, rather than waiting for what might seem to be a terminal decline. Perhaps the last word however should be given to local resident Allison Livingstone: “We accept that not everything will work. Things will need to adapt and evolve or, sometimes, be dropped altogether. We’re running with this now, with an awful lot of pride and passion and invaluable help from the local community, and further afield.”