This week saw the latest instalment of the government’s witless approach to regenerating the country’s high streets.
Following the platitude-strewn high street review by Mary Portas, who likes to be known as “the queen of shops”, we now have what the Department for Communities and Local Government is billing as “Eric Pickles’ local shop parades plan“.
His plan: “Parades to be proud of: strategies to support local shops” is patronising drivel. Only a council unaware that it actually has shops could find it useful. It reveals, for example, that it is a good idea for markets to have a website, clinics can help pharmacies, and you should do something interesting with empty shops.
The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that councils hadn’t thought of trying to rejuvenate their high streets until ministers stumbled upon the idea. Local government minister Grant Shapps, announcing the “Portas Pilots”, winners of £100,000 grants for high street work, said Portas’s review of the high street was the “catalyst communities craved”.
The competition to be a Portas Pilot was government at its most puerile: a celebrity, an overhyped competition to create the illusion of activity, and a pathetic amount of cash, far too small to make a difference. It is a measure of councils’ desperation for funds – and what amounts to a bit of free consultancy in the shape of a visit from Portas and “tailored support” – that anyone bothered to apply.
Portas’ review recommended that town centre management should focus on “making high streets accessible, attractive and safe”. This was a valuable insight for all those councils that had been trying to make their high streets difficult to reach, ugly and dangerous.
Of more substance were her calls for Business Improvement Districts to be able to exercise the new community right to buy assets and run services under the Localism Act. She also gave energy to calls for councils to have greater powers to restrict the number of betting shops in an area (although the Local Government Association might have had the wit not to choose the day of the Grand National to release its reportclaiming betting shops drive business away from the high street – the one day of the year when thousands of unlikely gamblers stream onto it in search of a bookie).
The LGA felt marginalised in the review, and retaliated by pushing the line that the debate had already “moved beyond the Mary Portas proposals” and pressing their own ambitious but practical five point plan for high street revival.
If there is one policy area where they government should take bold localist steps, surely it is the high street. As the government itself recognises, they are vital to economic growth and the vibrancy of communities.
There has been some movement, such as the revised National Planning Policy Framework stressing the primacy of town centres and placing restrictions on out of town office developments. But even this was only in response to local government lobbying over the much weaker draft.
Ministers need to stop feeding out these concessions inch by inch while trying to distract us with competitions. Apart from the direct economic impact of the growing blight of vacant shops, the sight of empty windows adds to a general sense of despondency and decline which needs to be tackled with energy and urgency. This means embracing local government calls to have the power to take over vacant shops to use as training centres and other community activities, giving councils control over transport such as through allocating bus subsidies to ensure services support high streets, and more use of Business Improvement Districts to fund improvements.
Councils also need greater freedom over issues such as licensing and business taxes, helping new shops become established and making sure businesses such as late night bars and clubs make a full contribution to the local services they consume such as policing and cleaning. And the betting shop epidemic needs to be controlled.
This policy area highlights the lack of both imagination and influence evident at the DCLG. The Portas Review, Portas Pilots and Pickles’ idiots’ guide to local shops will not revive the country’s ailing high streets. It requires concerted action across government, including departments such as work and pensions, transport and the Home Office, to give councils the freedom to do what needs to be done.
Richard Vize is a commentator on public policy and management. Follow him on Twitter @RichardVize