Tonight the first episode of the long-awaited Mary: Queen of the High Street series airs on Channel Four following the developments of the Portas Pilot towns. Retail Week speaks to Mary Portas about the show and the impact of her recommendations to Government.
Retail Week: The first instalment of the show airs tonight, are you pleased with it?
Mary Portas: When you’ve done literally nearly two years of work and it comes to fruition it is very exciting. Although it could be a five hour programme because they have to edit so much out so I’m excited on one hand but it could be so much more on the other hand because so much has gone into it.
There is TV telling the story, and there are so many other things you want to get across but you can’t cover every storyline. One of the big things was how they look at parking.
Tonight it’s Roman Road [Tower Hamlets, London] and I chose it because it was one of the ones that didn’t get funding. This isn’t just about government initiative but as Mary and how I can help communities.
What should we expect from tonight’s show?
When I looked at Roman Road market, I realised that what had happened was a new consumer had moved in around the age of 30-plus with families and the market was still catering for people who had been there 20 years ago.
Now regeneration of the high street needs to be unique to the area. The most simple thing was to get the town team to choose [who was allowed to trade on a] market stall. That is just a new way instead of the council choosing.
You’ve just got to go into a situation and that’s why I say about this being unique. Roman Road didn’t have a proper town team so I got more people on the town team and I tackled the council. I took an anchor shop and put food into the market, which helped anchor it. So really it’s about looking at new anchors which I believe is the future of the high street and working with the council.
It has been reported you lobbied Government on which Portas Pilots should be chosen, what is your reaction?
I don’t care. It’s not true.
The truth is the Portas Pilots are an initiative, they’re Tory and that was a Labour backlash, simple as that. What I will say is none of this is political. I would do that same work for Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP - I don’t give a hoot. I did this piece of work because it’s a massive social issue and I would do it again and I would do it for any party. The minute newspapers stop making this a political issue and understand we need to get behind this because it is a massive social issue in our country, it is effecting people’s livelihoods, it is effecting how we live, then they might start to be kinder and cleverer in their approach.
What do you hope the new TV show will achieve?
This is not a makeover, this is not about me going in and changing it overnight, so I do get upset when I read the sarcasm of some of the people in certain programmes, saying ‘she hasn’t done this’. But this will take years.
This is what I hope for my show, I hope it gives inspiration to other towns, gives them some guidelines.
When I did Mary Queen of Shops I was amazed wherever I went there was always shop people that said, “Oh my god, I got so many tips from that show”.
And I want the fight for high streets to be on the public agenda and for me to be highlighting it. Whenever I get knocked for it being a PR thing of course there’s a big part of it that’s a PR thing, because that’s what we need. We need people to understand that if they don’t regenerate and use the high streets we won’t have them and that’s a massive social issue. For me it’s really about kick-starting this kind of interest in regeneration and inspiring people. It’s not a makeover, it’s not that I’m finished and I walk away and I’ve done it.
Do you think the Government will listen to you and take your comments on board?
I’m really hoping so. I’m not working for them because I have given them the recommendations now. It is now down to the Government to ensure these recommendations are put into action and the only way that I can use my power now is to highlight it on behalf of the public that’s who I’m doing this for and when it gets political I actually think I want to move away from that. It’s not what this is about. I’ve done the recommendations and they now need to follow those recommendations. And I’m still waiting for a lot of things to come back on that.
Government has still got to actually answer every single recommendation. They said they would do it by spring. Definitely things about the rates and you can only build out-of-town with exceptional sign off from Secretary of State, which is currently not happening.
They have to put it in place. I think Government needs to trial these things, put in a blueprint and guidelines and an infrastructure to really help towns so they can go online and see how to do things.
What did you learn from doing the series?
I think I would be looking for incentives to really create town teams that are made up of the landlords, the councillors and all the different stakeholders. I think they should be made of representations from all the stakeholders, I would really give clear guidelines on that. It really has to incorporate all those people. It can’t just be locals, although they are very important on this.
The parking issue. It’s so big. Local authorities are scared that if they’ve not got enough parking they’re not going to make their budget. I would have loved to have had more examples of success and put that into the report.
I would have liked a white paper before the money went into the town teams, because I think people really do need clear guidance and I think so many of them have come under criticism on the way they’ve spent their money or haven’t spent their money which has been a real shame because they’re only trying their best.
I would have given clearer guidelines on having a real vision for the high street and going to the businesses that you want to populate the high street, so many of them think it’s got to happen organically and it can’t.