The high street: the failure of Mary Portas

When The Portas Review, a report on the UK’s high streets, was published, I wrote the critique below. This week Portas is speaking to a House of Commons select committee. She is reported to be disappointed that the policies that she proposed have not been more widely adopted. But as my critique makes clear, some of her recommendations are so vague that it is unclear what following them would mean, whilst those that are clear are based on poor thinking.

High streets – towns’ central retail areas – are under great pressure – from the growth of out-of-town shopping malls, supermarkets, and hypermarkets, the development of online and mobile shopping, and the recession.

As a result, the UK government commissioned a report from Mary Portas on the future of high streets. The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets, published earlier this week, may be downloaded from the author’s website,

Booksellers of the bricks-and-mortar kind have two reasons to be interested in the outcomes. First, they are particularly prone to the forces identified above: in the UK at least they are more likely to be found in the high street than in a mall and the buyers of books were early adopters of digital commerce. Second, they have a vested interest in the survival of high street retailers of all kinds: a high street that is successful in general creates footfall, and hence potential custom, for all its members.

It is not surprisingly then that the Booksellers Association (BA) should have made a submission to the review and should comment on it on publication. What is surprising is the BA’s uncritical welcome of the report.

The BA’s press release (13 Dec), downloadable from its website, begins:

In her independent review into the future of our high streets, Mary Portas says she has a vision: “I don’t want to live in a Britain that doesn’t care about community” and furthermore, “I want to put the heart back into the centre of our high streets, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.”

Sydney Davies, head of trade & industry at the Booksellers Association, said:

“This is exactly what a bookshop brings to the community. This supports the position the Booksellers Association has long held about the vital importance of booksellers on the High Street for the UK”.

Yes, Mr Davies – but the question is not whether Ms Portas’s sentiments echo your own: the question is whether her recommendations will do anything substantial to help your members.

I can’t see that they will. The report provides 28 recommendations. For example:

  • “Put in place a ‘Town Team’: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets”
  • “Establish a new ‘National Market Day’ where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business”
  • “Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own”
  • “Retailers should report on their support of local high streets in their annual report”
  • “Introduce a public register of high street landlords”.

According to Ms Portas’s comments at the launch of her report, these recommendations only make sense when read together, as a whole. I find that view unconvincing: yes, there is some articulation between recommendations – but in truth the list is a pretty disparate one.

The report is beset by vagueness. If we’re going to have Town Teams, it’s great to hear that they should be “visionary, strategic and strong” – but what exactly would they do?

It would be difficult to argue against Portas’s recommendation to “Make it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason why not” – one would hardly want unnecessary, invalid policies. But what exactly are we talking about? One’s eyes move from the summary of the recommendations to the body text of the report in order to find the answer to such questions, only to find this: 

We need to encourage and enable markets to be new social hubs full of entrepreneurial talent and innovation. Government could signal its clear and strong support for markets by simply switching their default position. Instead of needing to jump through certain hoops of licenses and regulations, why can’t we proceed on the assumption that anyone can trade on the high street, unless there is a valid reason why not?

“Certain hoops”: such as? 

The report’s vagueness is most evident in the recommendations’ verbs: various people are enjoined to “consider”, “focus on”, and “explore” things. I’m sure they should do so. It’s just a shame that the report should provide them with so little guidance in their considerations, focus-ings, and explorations.

In short, the report fails to live up to the standards that it sets for others. For example, Portas encourages policy-makers to be clear (“crystal-clear” even) about things, but listen to her own analysis: 

There’s a minefield of issues – tax and business rates, rents and contracts, planning, parking restrictions, delivery curfews and use classes, to name but a few.

Some geezer at the bar of my local pub could have told me as much.

The high street needs rigorous economic analysis. We should ask: To what extent are the current problems the result of the free play of the market and to what extent the result of poor government (regulation, taxation, etc.)? To the extent that the market cannot be relied upon to deliver – because, for example, of the externalities involved – how likely is it that new policy-making will make things better rather than worse? In particular, to the extent that policy-makers provides incentives to high street retailers, what kinds of opportunity cost are incurred?

These are difficult yet unavoidable questions. If The Portas Review had grappled with them, there is a chance that it might itself have proved “visionary, strategic and strong”.

But the report doesn’t do rigour. What it does instead is encourage putative Town Teams to produce “game-changing stuff … not just the usual suspects round a table planning the Christmas decorations”. Portas’s faith in such teams is remarkable: 

Armed with a shared vision of the future and shaped by the people who will use their high street, the Town Team could have the power to decide the appropriate mix of shops and services for their area. Anything which doesn’t meet the agreed plan simply wouldn’t be able to go ahead.

There will of course be no vested interests, no risk of corruption, and no question that these seers can fail to double-guess the future. None whatsoever.

On the one hand, then, we have very powerful economic forces, drawing consumers towards shopping out-of-town or online: on the other hand we have  lashings of motherhood-and-apple-pie words – no end of “vision”, “teams” and, above all, that old stalwart “community”.

The word “community” certainly gained a double tick from the BA, whose press release tells us with heart-warming smile that “In our submission to the Review, we emphasised that bookshops, in addition to promoting literacy and culture, also build community character”.

Well done, Mr Davies. Now tell us what you think this review is going to do for your members. I think the answer is, very little. If you’re a high street bookseller, the grim news seems to be: you’re on your own, it’s down to you.


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