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Mary Portas Interview: 6 Years On, The Same Problems Persist, But Britain’s High Streets Can Be Reinvented

Six years past Mary Portas' original high street review, not enough has changed.

Portas, the founder and executive creative director of Portas Agency, was commissioned in 2012 by then Prime Minister David Cameron to undertake a government review into what could be done to revitalise Britain’s town centres and high streets.

Fast forward to 2018, and things have if anything gotten worse instead of better. 

Mary Portas

Earlier this week the Daily Mail and The Mirror both launched campaigns to “Save Britain’s High Streets”.

And on the morning Bisnow spoke to Portas, the former Iceland Chief Executive Bill Grimsey had launched the findings of his second independent review of Britain’s high street retail sector, after a first in 2013. The review came after the worst six-month period for high street closures in more than a decade.

Give or take a few suggestions from Grimsey about the need for better WiFi and cloud-based portals for sharing information, the 28 suggestions put forward by Portas are remarkably similar to the 25 from Grimsey. The central planks are identical: a need to change the business rates regime; the need for fewer shops and more residential and community-led facilities like libraries and health centres; the liberalisation of the planning regime to make change of use easier; greater penalties on landlords to bring empty retail units back into use; and suggestions that would allow local government to play a greater role in shaping the future of town centres.

Speaking to Bisnow ahead of an appearance at the Retail Revolutions 2018 event on 12 July, Portas said the fact that many of the suggestions from different reviews are the same, six years down the line, highlights how government has not taken the issue of high street decline seriously enough.

“We’re not hearing anything new compared to what we said six years ago,” she said. “Why was something not done about rates, about freeing up the planning system, about placemaking, about enabling local authorities, about reducing parking charges?”

But she also said the opportunity still exists to radically reimagine Britain’s town centres and adapt them to what people want from the high street in the 21st century. 

A failing high street

Portas put the failure to act from central government after her review, the recommendations of which were broadly echoed by other parts of the retail and property industry, down to a kind of categorisation error.

“I think central government did not see this as a social issue, they saw this as a business issue,” she said. “They thought, people are just going online now and buying things, and there is nothing we can do about it, and they didn’t have a larger vision about what this issue is really about.

“Because it is a social issue. High streets have always been about more than retail — it’s about creating links between people and bringing a community together. We have an ageing population, and the places that people come together, like libraries or post offices, are being ripped out of communities, and young people are disenfranchised because there are no facilities for them. High streets are social and community resources.”

Portas said the fault does not lie only with central government. “Big retail businesses did not see this coming, they were not nimble enough, and thought they could get by on the old way of doing things,” she said. "They should be looking at these huge stores but as places that can be filled with resources that are needed in bricks and mortar from well-being to work space to social as well as retail."

In terms of where things go from here, Portas said things are likely to get worse before they get better for Britain’s town centres, but all is not lost.

The key areas to focus on are a revision of the rates system, to take account of the imbalance between online and offline retailers, but also to encourage new types of business on to the high street.

Heights Mercantile, Warby Parker

“Charity shops receive business rates relief, and a lot of people complain that high streets have too many charity shops on them,” she said. “So why not limit the number to two per high street, and give that rate relief to new businesses instead? We are incredibly entrepreneurial and creative in Britain, and this is something we can do to give a boost to those entrepreneurial businesses and the high street at the same time, to empower growth. Why not put a creche in the high street, and allow it to share resources with a children’s retailer and other linked services?”

She said the amount of new out-of-town retail needs to be reduced, and local authorities should be encouraged to buy assets to take greater control of the destiny of their high streets.

There are plenty of success stories that can be pointed to at home and abroad that could provide a vision of what the high street can be.

“Look at the success of some of the artisan food companies like Gail’s Bakery, or even independent butchers,” she said. “People today in local high streets are shopping daily, buying less but more often and we are seeing the big supermarket groups focusing some of their retail in a local way. Where’s the strategy from local council and central government to encourage that growth?"

Innovative retailers like Warby Parker and Bonobos in the U.S. show the direction of the shopping experience — they started online but went into brick-and-mortar because they realised people want the service, human interaction and guidance of a shop.

"Or look at Sneakerboys in Australia — they don’t even carry any stock, the kids come in, have a look around and they order online and get stuff delivered.”

Most of all, Portas said that central government, local government, retailers and the property industry need to come together, and to look to the future and not the past.

“The high street will never be what it was, it isn’t about individual retail spaces. But there is a real future. We just need a vision for each place."

To hear from Mary Portas and myriad other retail experts come to Bisnow's Retail Revolution 2018 event on 12 July at 7.30am.