The Portas Review

Mary Portas

Review by: Jamie Licko, Centro Inc

Portas ReviewIn May 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced an initiative to undertake a comprehensive national review of the UK’s city centers (more commonly referred to as “the high street”). Cameron’s announcement of the review came on the heels of the Government’s removal of regional development authorities and the some £2 billion of funding and support they had been injecting into local governments and economies to encourage town center management and growth. As the economic recession hit nearly simultaneously, the national Government faced significant criticism that little was being done to address local issues.

Cameron tapped Mary Portas – an established personality in the world of UK retail marketing – to identify what the public and private sectors could do together to overcome struggling high streets and promote the development of new models of prosperous and diverse city centers.

The report aimed to:
– Make the case for the high street, and its importance in promoting economic growth, creating jobs and improving quality of life in local areas; and
– Explore new business models for high streets relevant to today’s consumers, and determine how best to implement and manage the new model; and
– Recommend what action government, businesses and other organizations should take to create diverse, sustainable high streets where small businesses and independent retailers are able to thrive.

This report formed part of the Government’s work on the Growth Agenda, which identified retail as one of six sectors capable of delivering significant economic growth and stimulating employment in the post-economic crisis period. Cameron’s advancement of this review served as an important and visible indicator of the importance of city centers to the overall economy, as well as their critical role in fostering employment and local commerce.

About The Portas Review
Known more as a TV personality than high street expert, the choice of Portas to write the review came as a surprise to some. Still, her involvement in the project would bring a significant awareness to the struggling state of the UK’s town centers that might not have otherwise been realized.

Portas undertook a six-month review of the UK’s high streets, and her work resulted in the publication of The Portas Review in December 2011. The Review sets out 28 specific recommendations and argues that the UK’s high streets cannot simply focus on retail any longer, but must offer something new and different – an experience that goes beyond retail with creative uses of public space and a vibrant evening economy.

Portas’ recommendations fall into the following six categories:
Run city centers as a business is run: Portas cites a need to create “Town Teams” that bring together visionary, strategic and operational management for high streets; she also talks of empowering BIDs to take on more responsibilities and powers, and addresses initiatives to spur entrepreneurialism on the high street.
Get the basics right to allow business to flourish: Portas’ recommendations include adjusting business taxation rates to support independent businesses, improved approaches to managing parking in city centers, addressing city center accessibility and safety issues, and overall


deregulation of codes and zoning to make it easier for various business types to enter the market.
Level the playing field for city centers: Portas makes a case for utilizing the National Planning Policy Framework to create a “city center first” development strategy to slow the growth of out-of-town development. She also argues for a requirement that requires larger national retailers to support and work with independents.
Create stronger responsibilities for property owners: The UK’s taxation system is focused more on the business than the property owner, and Portas makes a case for putting more responsibility on the property owner to drive redevelopment and reuse of properties by creating disincentives for vacancies and negligence to buildings.
Give communities a say: Portas wants to empower communities to vision and implement the future of their own city centers, believing this involvement will also mean long-term commitment and investment community-wide.

Portas’ report closes with a final, important call for action – to pilot her recommendations in a variety of UK communities to test what works and what doesn’t.

The Portas Pilots
The Government responded swiftly within a few months of the report’s release. With £1 million as an incentive, the Government issued a call for towns to compete to become a “Portas Pilot” and initiate creative plans to realize their own town vision. Initially it was envisioned that 12 pilot communities would be accepted, splitting the £1 million between them. The Government put no constraints around the use of the funds in order to allow creativity and entrepreneurialism in the approaches to high street revitalization. Applicants need only be ad hoc groups of people (e.g. Town Teams) who had interest in coming together to focus on the town center.

The response was overwhelming, with some 400 communities submitting creative bids. The interest led to a proposal that Government fund:
– An additional 12 Portas pilot communities
– A £500,000 investment to help communities interested in creating business improvement districts access loans to cover their start-up costs
– A High Street Innovation Fund directing £10 million in resources directed towards local governments in areas facing significant vacancies and blight – including some devastated by the 2011 riots – to help bring entrepreneurs to their communities
– A £1 million future High Street X-Fund to reward the areas delivering the most effective and innovative city center plans

In concept, The Portas Review – and the Government’s quick response to it – should have jumpstarted relatively significant changes in the fabric of the UK’s city centers. In reality, implementation of the recommendations, and getting the Portas Pilots off the mark, has been much more challenging than first envisioned.

To date, the initiative has yielded the following:
– 27 Portas Pilot “Town Teams” created, each receiving £100,000
– Up to 392 other “Town Teams” (unsuccessful Portas applicants) each receiving £10,000
– 100 local governments who each received £100,000 from the High Street Innovation Fund (oddly, local governments were not challenged to bid or compete for this money, it was given to selected governments based on a still yet-to-be-defined set of parameters around the economic state of the communities)
– The launch of a rather loosely-defined £1 million future high street competition, for which applicants must register by December 2012
– £1 million allocated for the development of high street neighborhood plans
– A network of support between the teams to share information

The biggest and most immediate challenge has been, it seems, supporting the enthusiasm of the ad-hoc Town Teams to undertake productive and purposeful activity while also managing expectations about what can be done with limited resources. Some have felt that this initiative was ill-designed as a short-term scheme to address ‘quick fixes’, and that the program does little to address the bigger, long-term challenges facing high streets.

Other issues that have emerged in implementing the Portas Pilots:
– The report called for the creation of new Town Teams and talked about BIDs, but failed to mention the value of many of the voluntary not-for-profit membership-based partnership organizations doing work in various communities around the UK. In fact, to an extent the report was seen as criticizing these organizations, arguing that they were often too narrowly focused and didn’t involve a broad enough constituency. In some cases, the push for the creation of new Town Teams has damaged existing town center management partnerships.
– Because of the loose-knit nature of many of the new “Town Teams” who were awarded funds, internal community conflicts have arisen over the use of the funds. As one Portas Pilot town said “the money is enough to be divisive, but not enough to make a difference.”
– Local government has been able to serve only as a conduit for the money, with it flowing through them to the applicants. Thus, local governments have no formal oversight of the funds. Because the national government has put no real restrictions on the use of the funds either, the door has been left open for significant (and very non-strategic) misuse of funding. Additionally, local governments have been – in many cases – unwilling to get involved with the Portas Pilot applicants because of a lack of accountability. They are wary of putting matching funds in, thus missing a good opportunity to leverage national resources with local dollars.
– What the applicants do with the money once they are awarded has not necessarily been tied to the recommendations in The Portas Review, or even to what the applicants originally said they would use the money for in their applications.
– There are currently no reporting requirements back to the national Government about how the money is being used or the impact of it in individual communities.

Ultimately Government rejected Portas’ recommendations for all out-of-town retail planning applications to be subject to special approvals, actions to tackle empty and decaying retail properties, and incentives to develop BIDs – recommendations that could have potentially had a truly significant and long-lasting impact on the face of city centers.

It remains to be seen whether the Portas Pilot initiative will have a lasting impact in the battle to bring back the UK’s struggling city centers. Some communities appear to be embracing more long-term planning and identifying opportunities to utilize their money to leverage other resources or create more sustainable funding sources (e.g. BIDs). Others seem content to spend their dollars on quick wins and small fixes.

I felt that digging into The Portas Review was important to the work of IDA and all of its members, so that we could learn from this national UK initiative and identify what elements of it could possibly be brought to bear elsewhere.