Two cheers for the Portas Pilots

Over 200 years ago Napoleon Bonaparte famously described England as a nation of shopkeepers.  And today we remain deeply attached to the success of our town centres.  The current handwringing about their future, and the massive popularity of the bidding process for the “Portas Pilots”, is proof of this.  The £100,000 that Mary Queen of Shops persuaded the Government to offer to the 6 winning town centres, together with some mentoring from the great guru herself, attracted some 370 bidders.  So popular was it in fact that while the original six winners should be announced in the next week or so, a further six will be chosen in June.

Mary Portas’ report itself is a heady mix of nostalgia and commercialism.  Bemoaning the demise of self-contained neighbourhood centres by quoting from Jane Jacobs’ classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities” one moment, and describing London’s two Westfield malls as “successful, immersive 21st century urban entertainment centres” the next,  she never quite seems to know which she prefers.  And of course in that she is no different from the rest of us.

We have been steadily deserting town centres since the 1970’s, when the first out of town shopping mall in the UK was built at Brent Cross in north London.  And over the last thirty-five years it has only been waves of estate agents, building society branches, restaurants, bars, and most recently betting shops, all of which were vigorously opposed by many local Councils at the time, which have prevented even higher levels of vacancies in our High Streets.  The toxic mixture of internet shopping and the recession (yes – we’re officially back in one folks), is only the latest threat.

So given the extent to which the importance and health of our towns is measured by how the shops are doing, it is no surprise that the Portas Pilots have captured the imagination of traders and Councils up and down the country.  Almost every town I have visited for this blog has submitted a bid: Godalming, Gosport, Margate and Sheerness among them.  A key part of the bid had to be a video submission, and civil servants will have had to look at all 370 of them before making their recommendation. So I thought I had better watch a few myself before writing this post.

I chose an area within about 45 minutes travel of the latest “immersive” (sic) offering from Mary Portas’ biggest client, Westfield Stratford, and found all the videos I could.  I’ve no idea whether they are a representative sample, but they are an odd lot.  They range from the genuinely inspiring, albeit in an “arty gentrification – yes please” sort of a way (Forest Hill & Sydenham), through reasonably interesting (Peckham) and worthy but hideously dull (both Waltham Abbey and Grays), to the bizarre “filmed in one take on a mobile phone” (Abbey Wood).

What they share, however, is an essentially backward looking nostalgia for the idyllic urban neighbourhood so beautifully described by Jane Jacobs, and quoted by Portas.  It is a view that radical surgery is not required, and that everything will come right with a lick of paint, some community spirit and a regular programme of local festivals.  But will it?  None of these are any good unless we actually spend money in our town centres.  So try this little questionnaire I’ve drawn up, and decide whether town centres have a future in their current form.

1.        Where do you like to see and be seen?

  • My local town centre
  • At the Ministry of Sound (readers outside the south-east please insert big city super-club of your choice)
  • YouTube
  • I don’t like people to see me anymore

2.       Where do you most frequently chat with your friends?

  • My local town centre
  • At somebody’s house over dinner / a cup of tea / a few bottles of WKD Vodka (delete as appropriate dependent on your age)
  • Facebook
  • I don’t have any friends anymore

3.       Where do you think you will get the best deal on new purchases?

  • My local town centre
  • Westfield
  • Amazon
  • I don’t buy anything anymore.

4.       Where do you feel most at home?

  • My local town centre
  • The Stretford End / Kop / Shed / Holte End / other home end of your choice
  • Downloading new apps for my iPad
  • In my home

Well:  If you chose mostly a’s then pat yourself on the back.  Town centres are safe in your hands.  Mostly b’s and c’s? Then you have been seduced by the plethora of alternatives, both real and virtual, and if everybody thinks like you things are not going to get better for your local town centre are they?  Mostly d’s?  Don’t worry – we all have days like that.

The benefits of town centres to society as a whole are well trumpeted: equity – they are accessible to all, with or without a car; sustainability – they tend to be nearer to where more people live – and a higher proportion of journeys to them are made by public transport; and they make the best use of urban land, rather than taking green field sites.  But the Portas Pilot videos made me think – is it actually our emotional attachment to town centres which drives our belief in their practical advantages, even as we desert them?  Will we have lost our national soul when we have lost our High Streets, much as others suggest will happen if we lose our pubs, our village greens or any more powers to Brussels?

Thriving shopping centres on the Jane Jacobs model still exist of course.  In Pitshanger Lane, West London for example  a relatively prosperous and, shall we say, “mature” local population keeps the traditional range of shops flourishing, and casual conversations still take place on the pavement – the very epitome of Jane Jacobs’ neighbourhood.  And in other places there is a more knowingly manufactured nostalgia geared to the visitor economy, as in Margate Old Town – selling you a “traditional” place, when the wares for sale are anything but.

But would this work everywhere?  I doubt it. There could have been a very different Portas Pilot video for your town – one in which half the High Street is converted to high quality houses and flats, children lark about in the play area at the heart of the pedestrianized former Market Place, and a fleet of electric-powered Ocado vans delivers  your groceries.  But none of them do that.  It wouldn’t fit how, in our imagination, our home town will continue to thrive.  I wish the winning town centres well – and the 360 or so which aren’t successful – but I suspect that many need something more radical than nostalgia and an injection of community spirit to make it through the next 200 years.

  • Harold Hall

    We could do worse than look for an ‘Eddie Stobbard’ of the High Street – progressive individuality,
    leadership in service standards, local names with family connections and hands-on presence, confidence in the long term as opposed to a desire to con today, heart-warming eye appeal with strong, colourful livery, shop blinds and awnings between which to see the rain. A new inter-net based supply chain through warehouses which match superstore buying practice and use modern delivery techniques should get close to superstore performance. That still leaves traffic engineers and town planners to get us near the shop door !

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