Mary Portas, labelled the ‘tsar’ of the British high street, has seen her scheme of ‘Portas Pilot Towns’ recently publicly supported by brands such as Boots, Lloyds and JD Wetherspoons. This backing comes at a crucial time for Portas, as the names of another 15 towns were revealed that will undergo transformation to become ‘Pilot towns’. The scheme is led by Businesses in The Community (BITC), and comes after Mary was commissioned to undergo a review of Britain’s high streets in 2011, prompting huge calls for the rapid transformation of streets full of empty shops.
Portas believes that local high streets should not only be a place for shopping, but a place for communities to engage. Portas found in her review that many town centres no longer appealed to locals. The scheme has been supported by the government, who have pledged to give £100,000 to each town selected to revamp themselves. The charity High Street Champions seek to build ‘town teams’ – teams that will attract younger people to local villages, that will offer volunteer work, encourage the use of market trading and back towns that undergo transformations. ‘High streets are the heartbeats of our towns,’ Portas argues. ‘When they are good, they bring a web of security, a sense of belonging, and vital community services to a place. When they decline, the fabric of a place can decline with it’.
After her success in transforming the local high street of Sydenham, Forrest Hill, it is no surprise that Portas received over 370 applications calling for her help after the governmental review. Local high streets have been hit by the increase in the last decade of online shopping, further impacted by the double dip recession. Portas has issued 28 recommendations to the government that she believes will enable her to transform British high streets. These include the establishment of ‘National Market Day’, removing the difficult legislation that prevents many from becoming market traders, encouraging large retailers to support/mentor smaller local businesses, and running a high profile campaign to get people involved in neighbourhood plans.
Among the newly named towns to become ‘Portas Pilot towns’ are Margate, Stockton on Tees, Bedford and Wolverhampton. Certainly with governmental support, it appears that Portas is en route to success in her wish to transform local high streets and build upon community pride, by re-establishing the roots of local town centres back to part time market trading, and a town centre that is adored by its town people.