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It’s getting harder to know how to address Mary Portas. A ‘retail guru’? ‘shopping tsar’? a ‘Government adviser’? ‘TV celebrity’? a ‘high street hero’ or simply plain old ‘Ms Portas’?
What is sure is that the flame-haired businesswoman has become the most recognizable face in the country when it comes to standing up for small retailers and flying the flag for local community shops.
In December 2011 she presented Prime Minister David Cameron with about 30 recommendations for how to save the high street. This included increasing the amount of free parking in town centres, creating ‘town teams’ to give a strategic focus, putting checks in place against rampant out of town supermarket expansion and making it easier for people to become market traders.
Now towns across the UK are bidding to become one of 12 ‘Portas Pilots’ – communities that will be given a slice of £1million to try out her ideas (the cut off for applications is March 30, if you’re interested in making a bid (www.maryportas.com).
“I want the first twelve Town Teams to challenge the old ways of working, experiment, take risks, and reaffirm their place at the heart of the community,” she said.
What I found is there is a great deal of enthusiasm and perhaps as you would expect, not a huge deal of detail at this stage. But one of the most obvious things that came across was people’s pride in their hometowns.
I also spoke to retailers in these towns and there was a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism about how much difference it could make if their town did become a Portas Pilot.
One twelfth of £1million is not enough to transform an entire town. But what the Portas project does is give a reason for creative retailers at the heart of their neighbourhood to stand up and share their ideas with the rest of their community.
At its heart this project is all about getting people interested in their local shops and giving them a reason to visit them.
Have you gotten in touch with local groups making a Portas Pilot bid? What do you think of the scheme? Do you have any ideas about how to change your neighbourhood that could get more people to visit?
I will be watching with great interest next month when the Government publishes its NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework – isn’t that the driest-sounding title imaginable)!
Although it may sound dull this is what will set the balance between how the Government looks at planning rules for town centres and out of town super developments and is of enormous importance to the future of small shops.
Let’s hope the Government has listened to the many smaller voices in the retail industry as well as the big, booming ones.
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