Portas defends retail strategy

Mary Portas

Retail guru Mary Portas has hit back at criticisms of her proposals to revive the country's high streets, insisting they had already acted as a "catalyst for change".

She told MPs the "huge bashing" she had taken from some critics for her government-commissioned review was unfair and that she did not pretend to be a single-handed "saviour" of local shopping.
The television presenter issued a direct rebuke to former Iceland and Wickes chief executive Bill Grimsey, suggesting he "does not sound like someone who really cares about the high street".

Mr Grimsey is publishing an alternative blueprint this week - including proposals for a one-off tax on major retail chains and leisure groups to fund regeneration - and has accused Ms Portas of being too "nostalgic".
"I must have done something to Bill Grimsey in a former life," she joked when asked about the spat at an appearance before the Commons communities and local government select committee.

"I can't think what it is for the life of me. I think it's because I didn't actually speak to him regarding my review. He was one of the people I left off. What I have tried to do is highlight something that I think is a really important part of the way we live.

"I've seen Mr Grimsey's headlines that it's dead, it's over. That does not sound like someone who really cares about the high street to me and the implications of that.

"I like to give hope because I believe there is some way for the high street, going forward. I've seen it. There are towns where this has happened and people have a thriving high street. That can happen across the country."

The Portas review was published 18 months ago and included recommendations such as setting up 27 "Portas Pilots" that shared £2.3 million of funding. A £10 million High Street Innovation Fund was also set up to help councils with the highest incidence of empty properties and those most affected by the 2011 riots.

Ms Portas said towns which received the cash should have been given more of a framework for using it as some "just did not know what to do with it".

And she complained that she had been given little help negotiating the political minefield she stepped into by giving her name to a government review.

But she insisted it had created "enormous traction" towards reform even if it would take a long time to start showing results.

"I am not the saviour of the high street, I cannot do this on my own," she said.

"I am the champion of it. I am apolitical. I do not work for Government. I do this because I believe in high streets and I believe they are an important social infrastructure.

"Sometimes I wish I hadn't put my name to it. It should come with a health warning, any proposal people put forward, because I have taken a huge bashing for work that I have done for nothing. I think that is quite simply unfair."

She went on: "I wish someone had held my hand on navigating the politics because it's been a bit tough.

"It's tough when you see your name above the title of the towns or someone bashing it. It is very, very difficult to take when you think you've done this in your spare time.

"I would do it again because I think if we don't try to do something here and save our high streets, whatever shape that may take in the future."

Reviving high streets as community centres could help prevent a repeat of the 2011 riots in London and other English cities, she suggested.

"I was the first time in my life I had ever felt scared in my own city," she said. " What I clicked on that was actually that this was a displacement of people without any connection to their community and to their place.

"The consequence of that for town centres is that communities and that infrastructure are very important to people and that intimacy and that web of security that goes around your place is very important.

"That comes from high streets. To just say that that is dead is wrong."

Mr Grimsey says a 0.25% levy on companies with a UK turnover of more than £10 million in 2014 would create a fighting fund of £550 million to sponsor start-ups and other high street ventures.

His self-funded report - due to be presented at a House of Commons reception on Wednesday - is expected to call for a minister for high streets and say that town retail centres will need to incorporate education, arts, residential, leisure and technology facilities as part of a major overhaul.

They are among 31 expected recommendations in a report that is expected to examine business rates, use of technology to create "networked towns", car parking, access to finance for small business, charity shops and planning regulations.

Ms Portas told MPs it was "absolutely not the case" that she had tried to influence the Government's choice of which towns received Portas Pilot money in the interests of better television shows.

And she conceded that she did not believe town centres were one of Prime Minister David Cameron's "top priorities".

"He has many priorities. I don't think it is one of his top priorities," she said.

© 2013 Press Association
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