I'm no fan of Mary Portas, who has always seemed to me rather bossy and self-satisfied. So when the government asked her to come up with solutions for our ailing high streets I was inclined to dismiss it as a publicity stunt, akin to putting Carol Vordermann in charge of the maths curriculum. All credit to Mary, then, for coming up with a report for the Department of Business that is not only full of practical and (mostly) sensible ideas to revive our town centres, but also very readable, blessedly free of the jargon which usual plagues such offerings.
It will be interesting to see the government's considered response. If Mary's recommendations are to be put into practice, ministers will, I believe, be forced to make a choice: between backing the Big Society or sucking up to Big Business. We're in Hilton v Osborne territory here, for reasons I'll elucidate. And the government's response will clearly also have a bearing on the next steps in the development of its National Planning Policy Framework. At the moment, despite some lip service to localism, the Framework clearly favours Big Business, in the shape of corporate housebuilders and property developers.
Media reaction to the Portas report has, so far, split along fairly predictable lines. The BBC and Daily Telegraph both provide Mary with sympathetic coverage (as befits one of their own) whereas the Times dismisses her conclusions as backward looking. The Guardian stands out as the most supportive, asserting in its editorial that Mary “gets it.” In other words, that she has identified the need for our high streets to function as centres of community. For once, I'm with the Guardian. Because I share Mary's view that the dereliction of town centres marks a loss to British society and that we need to find ways of reviving their place in our culture.
It is a truism to say that many of our town centres have become scruffy and characterless, full of charity shops and cloned versions of cheap chainstores. By day, they are frequented only by the unemployed and those OAPs or young mothers who can't afford to go anywhere else. By night, they are either completely deserted, or dominated by late night drinking and take-aways. Years of bad planning decisions, by local councils of all political stripes, have destroyed the character of too many of our towns and allowed both commerce and culture to shift to retail parks in nowhere land.
The problem, exacerbated by the growth of online shopping combined with a squeeze on incomes, is far from new. We all know towns that “work” and thrive, and can compare them with those that are dreary failures. Shopping in the former is an uplifting experience; in the latter it's a matter of painful necessity, to be got over with as quickly as possible.
The Times is right that some of Mary's proposals have a retro flavour, in that they seek to retrieve for town centres a few of the characteristics that used to make them pleasant places to be. But the report fully accepts that modern shopping habits are not going to be overturned, because we all value quick and convenient shopping. Instead of fighting this, Portas advocates a different mix for high streets, the main objective being to create a closer fit between shopping and other activities – both work and leisure. In other words, copying features of the more successful retail malls, but combining them with the individualism and localism of a healthy town centre.
I'd go further and propose that town centres need to be reclaimed as residential areas too. It's clear that small retailers will continue to struggle in the years ahead. We are mired in debt and cannot hope to shop our way out of the current economic downturn. Many shops built on the back of the debt boom will fold, because they cannot rely on another burst of easy credit to see them through. Whilst many of Mary's proposals – such as better co-ordinated local planning, cheaper parking, lower business rates and easing change of use restrictions – will help small businesses, the tide cannot be turned against the desires of consumers for one-stop (or one-click) shopping.
So we need to find other ways of using our high streets: what better than to solve the current housing shortage? Town living is convenient, reduces car use, and puts people close to the services they need. Out of town housing estates are favoured by developers because they are cheap to build. But they are also as characterless and car-dependent as out-of-town shopping malls. There are huge benefits to living in towns, not least for young people and the elderly. If we are to see a revival of our high streets, with a successful mix of services, businesses, voluntary initiatives, entertainment and neighbourliness, then we need to use the planning tools at our disposal to concentrate these resources into a coherent whole, and to entice people to live amongst them.
My home town is a prime example of a thriving community which has prevented both out of town supermarkets and greenfield housing sprawl. Chipping Norton, just up the road from the Prime Minister's constituency home, has been unfairly characterised as the home of the “Chipping Norton set”. In fact it's a blameless English market town with only a handful of 4-by-4s, a good many OAPs and no high-end designer shops; Dorothy Perkins is about as cutting edge as you can get here. What it does have is a varied high street which combines in-town supermarkets with independent butchers, a bookshop-cum-cafe, cheap market stalls, charity shops, hardware stores and an old fashioned department store. There are pubs, cafes and restaurants – mostly independently owned – as well as a theatre and open-air lido (both reliant on volunteers and sponsors to keep going, but very popular locally.) Unlike many Cotswold towns, it's not dominated by antique shops; it's authentic, busy, and suits all tastes. Bids for out of town supermarkets surface at regular intervals but – so far – have been rejected, to the clear benefit of the town centre. It also has plenty of new housing and redevelopment right in the centre, alongside the shops and pubs and mixed in with older terraces and two-up two-downs. People don't just work and shop here, they also live here.
Now before you say that Chipping Norton is totally unrepresentative of the mass of British high streets, I'll concede that there are plenty of locals who are comfortably off. But I'll bet that the average spend of the young families and pensioners who do most of their shopping in “Chippy” is similar to that of dozens of other English market towns which have dismally failed to retain any character or diversity. Careful planning, based on preserving the character of the town to the benefit of local residents and businesses, has been the key to its success.
The retail consortia and property developers do not care for Mary's report, and will not want to see her proposals implemented. So far, they have had the ear of government, winning most of their objectives in the National Planning Policy Framework. The latest housing strategy provides further concessions, offering to relieve developers of their obligations under s106 agreements (the need to provide a community benefit in return for licence to build). And as she put together her report, Mary Portas was clearly leaned on to withdraw her original recommendation for a clear presumption against out of town development.
But after thirty years in which soulless out of town sites have sucked the heart out of our towns and cities, do we really need any more? Just as the National Planning Framework should include a clear presumption against green belt urban sprawl and in favour of brownfield and urban neighbourhood regeneration, so our town planning rules should work in favour of improving our high streets rather than leaving them to rot. All power to Mary, I say. The Prime Minister has seen Big Society thriving in Chipping Norton. If he wants to replicate that success up and down the country, he should follow Mary's recommendations.