Retail Week editor-in-chief Chris Brook-Carter speaks to government retail advisor Mary Portas about rescuing high streets, the Portas Pilots and the future of retailing.

Mary Portas

Chris Brook-Carter: How did you get involved?

Mary Portas: I got a phone call from Steve Hilton who was adviser to David Cameron and he rang me about something completely different. He said he was doing a book shop with Nick Hornby that was trying to entice kids into reading it was a great theme and he said we’d love you to work on this shop. I was very busy at the time and I remember saying to him, look I think it’s a great idea but I really haven’t got time but actually, quite honestly, Steve I think there are bigger issues that I would love to look at on the high street at the moment. I think this was back in 2010 and said look I think there’s going to be a crisis on the high street.

I don’t suppose I had any kind of idea at that time what I wanted the end result to be, but at the time I felt there was going to be a real collapse unless something was done. This was two years ago and if you look at it today that has happened and actually even quicker than I thought.

Even at that point did you not think you were trying to hold back the inevitable?

I didn’t see this as an ‘oh gosh, how do we stop the end of the high street?’. I saw it very much as how do we think about the new role of the high street in the future and I think had we started on this piece of work four or five years ago, we would have invested in a new way of [using] the high street, knowing what was coming. It’s not about holding the death of the high street back, the tsunami that was coming, it’s really about what will be the future role. Because I do believe there will be one but it won’t be what it has been in the past. 

As you worked through the project did you formulate the ideas of what success would look like?

I was at my very first meeting in Whitehall and there were all these different civil servants around the desk and I said can you show me any work that has been done before? And they showed me these two filing cabinets of reports and gave me all the names of people that had written reports and all I can remember thinking was I don’t want to end up in that filing cabinet. Can I get past going in the filing cabinet and the dust settling on me in Whitehall?

Do you fear you have ended up in the filing cabinet?

I don’t think I have ended up in the cabinet because I think this has become one of the most significant things. It has been on the news agenda constantly, so I dont think that has happened. I also haven’t put a timeline to this. Its going to take years to change and so for me to have thought it could have got further down the line by now I think it would have been a false hope.

These things are so complicated that I just think in some ways I’m actually pleased it has become of such national interest. It’s empowering people to say “I actually do care”.

Do you feel you have done enough consensus around different interest groups in formulating the plans?

I hope I’ve listened enough. I hope I’m representing people’s thinking and if not I would love as many stakeholders to get on board and put pressure on Government to really help and assist change. I just started this but really its down to other people, those that are stakeholders and people in this room to say how can we get involved.

What actually is your vision?

In all honesty I don’t know the answer. I think or I believe that a sustainable high street of the future will put the needs of that particular community at the heart of it so I do believe it will not be the high street of the last 10 years where you could go to each town and see the same brands. I think what will happen is we will create unique mixes for the right market that’s there. So what might be right for a high street in Doncaster might not be right for a high street in Guildford and I think it will be based around multifunctional uses of social, health well-being, shopping, I do not believe we will see high streets populated with shops particularly in the way we have before.

Are you pleased with how the Portas Pilots have progressed?

[It’s] the first time we’ve ever had a minister for the high street. So there was a bit of a tick that someone was actually taking it on in Government and saying we’ll put a minister in place. Because if you look historically the high streets just looked after themselves. They just organically happened.

I was happy to see something happening. It was being taken seriously and being invested in. What the end result was going to be has to be managed. It can’t be managed by me. It has to be managed by the infrastructure the Government put in.