They were the 12 towns that the Government boasted would be in the “the vanguard of a revolution” to revive the UK’s battered high streets, with Mary Portas, the retail expert and TV personality, parachuted in to lead the initiative.
But The Independent can reveal that the so-called “Portas Pilots” have spent just 12 per cent of the £1.2m awarded in May, indicating that progress has been painfully slow.
Worse still, certain councils and their “town team” appear to have squandered chunks of the £100,000 they were given on seemingly wasteful items, such as £1,600 on a Peppa Pig costume, nearly £1,000 on postage, according to Freedom of Information Requests seen byThe Independent.
At a time when some of the high street’s biggest names have gone into administration, the snail-like progress of the Portas Pilots and lax approach to taxpayers’ money has angered retail experts. The 121-store fashion chain Republic has hit the buffers, putting 2,500 jobs at risk, while Blockbuster’s administrator said it was closing a further 164 stores, in addition to the 160 already announced.
The retail expert Paul Turner-Mitchell, who submitted the FOI requests, said it demonstrated the majority of councils were not capable of delivering the dynamic change needed to revive UK high streets. Mr Turner-Mitchell, a director of Rochdale-based retailer 25 Ten Boutique, said: “It’s disappointing that, given this unique opportunity to try something different, many councils have wasted funding on the usual bureaucracy of meetings, expense claims and consultants.”
He added: “The high street needs urgent support so why is so much of this money still sitting in local authority bank accounts?”
The findings will further fuel the argument that the work of Ms Portas, whose company did not return calls, is unlikely to yield long-term benefits to the UK high street.
Of the Portas Pilots, the 11 councils that responded had only spent £136,000 by 31 December of the £1.1m they were awarded.
For instance, Croydon had only spent £4,950 of its £100,000, while Wolverhampton had accounted for £11,817 of the same amount.
Other councils, such as Stockport, received a further £362,000 from the council and other bodies but had only spent £25,800 of a whopping £462,000.
John O’Mara, the chairman of Stockport Town Team, said: “We’ve spent time putting our enthusiastic, committed Town Team in place, which has now spent more than £25,000 on worthwhile projects.
He added: “This is a pilot – it’s about new ways of working. What’s important is getting this right, not how quickly we get the money out of the door. These things don’t happen overnight.”
Such meagre spending appears to shatter hopes raised by the Government last May. At that time, Local Government minister Grant Shapps said: “These pilots can be the vanguard of a high-street revolution, and others can look at their example to kick-start a renaissance of our town centres.”
More controversial are findings, such as Dartford Council’s Portas Pilot spending £5,983 on newspaper adverts, £1,317 on surveys, £1,610 on hiring a person in a Peppa Pig costume, and £317.46 on items from Waitrose.
A Dartford spokeswoman said: “Local newspaper adverts have been used to promote the launch of Sunday trading in the town, our six-month Sunday market pilot and our bursary scheme for businesses looking to set up in the market. The council hired Peppa Pig for the day as it’s a proven way to draw in families to events.”
But eyebrows have also been raised by Wolverhampton City Council, whose team has spent £989 on postage.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “The Government has given the Portas Pilots a share of £2.4m to spend as and when they see fit to best improve their high streets and encourage residents to shop locally.” He added: “But the main aim of this scheme has been to harness the energy of local people to breathe new life into the town centres and make them the hearts of their communities again, and Pilots up and down the country are already doing this very successfully.”
Money to spare: The bills
Pilot/Amount Received/Amount Spent
Market Rasen £98,599/£32,520
Margate Failed to respond to FOI/Failed to respond to FOI