The Portas report: it’s a great start, but we need local power, not national edicts

After a week of mixed news from the high street (all is well at Moss Bros and Sports Direct, but things are grim at La Senza, Blacks, Peacocks, HMV…), we have had time to digest the Portas report on the future of our high streets.  This has garnered thousands of column inches, most of them soaked in olde English gloom, and offering up a hundred reasons why little can be done, or why consumers really prefer the mixed offering they suffer today – after all they’ve voted with their feet.  Most commentators agree that parking charges should be lower, and thereafter, everyone diverges.

In part, this is because of the Portas Effect.  It’s easy to paint Portas as an underqualified media star, plucked off the telly by a prime minister seeking to curry popular approval, but who lacks the experience or influence to deliver a report that will really make a difference.  Many retailers will recall (with a shudder) her fall from grace at Channel 4, whereby the engaging advice/”reality” pep-talk she gave to independent shopkeepers on BBC Two was replaced with megaphone stampedes and questionable attacks on retail chains at the C4 theatre of cruelty.

But I would urge you actually to read the report.  It doesn’t run like a government paper, drafted and redrafted into flaccidity by middle-ranking civil servants; it rings with Mary Portas’s voice.  Sometimes Portas may be unconsidered or quick to judge, but she writes with a passion and commitment that is sadly missing from most government-sponsored publications.  She writes about high streets, not with the dry authority of the great and good, but with verve and imagination.

This doesn’t make all her proposals good ones, and nor does it mean that implementing them would solve retail’s problems and create community hubs in every town in the country.  But it exposes – for this reader, at least – the extent to which centralisation stifles our neighbourhoods.  My personal view is that the real challenge is not the extent to which this or that idea is practical or worthwhile; it’s whether we, as communities and as an electorate, might prefer greater local control and accountability over the strategic direction of our town centres – and indeed, over much other public provision.

The Portas Report breaks down its recommendations under a series of headings, which emphasise that this is about more than just shops.  I’ve added in a few responses of my own.

Vision:

To breathe economic and community life back into our high streets.

This is actually the most difficult thing to define.  What is a “high street”?  I’d say it’s the centre of a community, offering a number of mixed uses – pubs, banks, surgeries, churches, launderettes – as well as shops.  It can be urban, suburban or rural; a local centre or a county town.  It can run on a medieval street pattern or a new town grid.  It might – thinking laterally – be centred on a properly-provisioned retail park, providing there is a broader community provision and universal access.

On that basis, the biggest city centres don’t count – people commute into London’s Oxford Street from around the world, but they don’t go there looking for 70w light bulbs or pints of real ale.  Tesco shut down on Oxford Street, it’s that unhighstreety.   The same applies to some extent to the centres of Glasgow, Manchester and the like, which are city centre equivalents of Westfield or Bluewater.

A high street needs a community generating economic activity in its own best interests, and it’s important not to get London-centric, as much of the capital can look after itself more effectively than most of the rest of the country, thanks to the concentration of wealth and power.  Marylebone High Street is terrific, in an eye-wateringly chi-chi way, but this is down to a single landlord working constantly to balance the retail mix; few other locations have its advantages.  Good high streets/community hubs really matter when they’re the only option you’ve got; I have five proper high streets within a 30 minute walk of my house, including two major centres, Kingston and Richmond.  A great many people across the country have just one, a drive or three bus rides away.

The implementation of the Portas report needs to be focussed on the Dunstables and the Camberleys, the Rotherhams and the Morpeths.  Getting these right isn’t just about having “nice shops” – it’s about ensuring that communities function economically and socially, rather than as dormitories or places of last resort.

It also needs to recognise that plenty of communities just don’t have what we might describe as a “town centre”.  Bleak suburbs in places like Basingstoke have no connection to their downtown mall; had they developed on the London pattern, over many centuries, they would have many high streets, but being built in one M3-driven splurge, there’s nothing there but supermarkets, trading estates and roundabouts.

Then there’s this sort of thing – the legacy of a previous age of optimism.  Pictures are of Cumbernauld, the planners’ dream and the reality.

Getting our town centres run like businesses:

1.  Put in place a “Town Team”: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets.

2.  Empower successful Business Improvement Districts to take on more responsibilities and powers and become “Super-BIDs”.

3.  Legislate to allow landlords to become high street investors by contributing to their Business Improvement District.

4.  Establish a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business.

5.  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.

I’m in favour of this group of recommendations.  Of course, market traders travel around – they can’t be everywhere on the same day; but more, and more vibrant markets would be welcome.

The Town Team needs teeth, though.  There are some terrific traders’ associations around the country, but their agenda isn’t always the same as the local council’s, and neither has the legal powers to make the sort of radical changes needed.   (Many councils also lack the vision and the will, but that’s another matter, see below.)

Getting the basics right to allow businesses to flourish:

6. Government should consider whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers.

7.  Local authorities should use their new discretionary powers to give business rate concessions to new local businesses.

8.  Make business rates work for business by reviewing the use of the RPI with a view to changing the calculation to CPI.

9.  Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table.

10.  Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe.

11.  Government should include high street deregulation as part of their ongoing work on freeing up red tape.

12.  Address the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street.

13.  Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own.

I’d like to see governments free up councils to make things happen – at the moment, our local authorities have little real power, and it shows in much of their decision-making.  Making high streets accessible, attractive and safe (number 10) means ensuring that there is a variety of uses bringing life to high streets throughout the day and into the evenings.  Too many are either dead after the shops close, or no-go zones after the pubs and clubs open.

Levelling the playing field:

14.  Make explicit a presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework.

15.  Introduce Secretary of State “exceptional sign off” for all new out-of-town developments and require all large new developments to have an “affordable shops” quota.

16.  Large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers.

17.  Retailers should report on their support of local high streets in their annual report.

I probably diverge at this point, as I don’t believe playing fields of this size and variety can be levelled (unless the whole country is handed over to the de Walden estate).  It should be the job of local councils, businesses and communities to create the environment they want, rather than the job of central government and (multi)national businesses to make life easy for them.

Defining landlords’ roles and responsibilities:

18.  Encourage a contract of care between landlords and their commercial tenants by promoting the leasing code and supporting the use of lease structures other than upward only rent reviews, especially for small businesses.

19.  Explore further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant.

20.  Banks who own empty property on the high street should either administer these assets well or be required to sell them.

21.  Local authorities should make more proactive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to encourage the redevelopment of key high street retail space.

22.  Empower local authorities to step in when landlords are negligent with new “Empty Shop Management Orders”.

23.  Introduce a public register of high street landlords.

Landlords are every retailer’s favourite bogeyman, but it would be good sense to make empty stores an unattractive prospect for their owners.  However, many communities simply have too many shops, and I’d support creating more residential space, or offices/workshops for small businesses, away from 100% prime pitch.  It isn’t so long since every high street had workshops on it – the blacksmiths are of course long gone, but sadly so are many of the garages/repair shops, craftsman jewellers, hardware stores and so on.

Giving communities a greater say:

24.  Run a high-profile campaign to get people involved in Neighbourhood Plans.

25.  Promote the inclusion of the High Street in Neighbourhood Plans.

26.  Developers should make a financial contribution to ensure that the local community has a strong voice in the planning system.

27.  Support imaginative community use of empty properties through Community Right to Buy, Meanwhile Use and a new “Community Right to Try”.

Portas writes about the seemingly wilful destruction of Ely in her report, where the council and developers created exactly what the townspeople appeared not to want.  I’d like to free councils up to make more imaginative planning decisions, and ensure that communities can hold them to account for doing so.

Re-imagining our high streets:

28.  Run a number of High Street Pilots to test proof of concept.

OK.

Let’s assume that there is some desire in government to implement some of these recommendations.  (That’s the risk of hiring TV stars, rather than judges and civil servants, to write reports.)

Most governments talk about returning power to local authorities and communities; most governments have a conflicting and overriding desire to centralise and control.  Local authorities today are pretty impotent – the bulk of their funding comes directly from central  government, their scope to raise local taxes is capped, and, as a consequence, much of local politics is drivellingly petty, with little changing (apart from the ongoing implementation of central government dictats) from one party’s term in office to another.  About the only area where local authorities have free rein is in managing traffic and parking, which is why it can seem so much easier to get away with, say, burglary, than with overstaying a parking meter by five minutes.  [Sorry, slight attack of the Daily Mails there.]

There is a way (neither quick and easy, nor cheap and uncontroversial) to revive our high streets, restore civic pride and focus local government on commerce as well as welfare and education, and that’s to give councils broader fund-raising capabilities.  This may be through uncapping the rates, or by implementing a local sales tax (with a reduction, not necessarily an equal one, in national taxes), or  through issuing local bonds.

Of course, a greater fund-raising remit requires democratic accountability.  Mayors and council leaders shouldn’t be honorary positions, they should (as we have seen in London and a random bag of other towns) be elected political leaders with real powers.

This is, of course, risky – very risky – for any national government to pursue.  Real local accountability leads to the creation of local power bases that conflict with national party leadership (Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson).  Real accountability means that things might get worse, not better – there would be more of a “postcode lottery” in a world where, say, Council A decided to halve its business rates, and Council B chose to double theirs.  The calibre of local councillors would have to improve, and national politicians would have to be as mindful of council leaders in our great cities as the US Senate must be of state governors.  I reckon that Eric Pickles might have achieved more as a truly empowered Mayor of Bradford, than as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  I’d like to see Tristram Hunt’s reflections on the Victorian New Jerusalem reimagined for the 21st century.  (The author is now an opposition MP for Stoke-on-Trent – if ever a city needed reinventing, it’s Stoke.)

I don’t think these aspirations are knee-jerk libertarianism, though I recognise that there would be at least two parliaments of disruption before any sense of settling down.  I appreciate that you may think I’ve gone from setting up ad hoc market stalls to a permanent shift in the national power base, in a single jump.

“All politics is local”, and it would be a welcome change to see intelligent, competent local  politicians making the right decisions for their town.  Nothing is more local than the revival of a town centre, or the creation of a proper place where people want to settle, work, and raise families.  Elected local politicians should have the discretion to allow appropriate development and changes of use, laid out in their manifesto, and subject to as little Whitehall interference as possible.  Any council should be able to explore Portas recommendations 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 or 28, if they see fit, without urging or permission from central government, without national laws having to be passed, intentions watered down, and further red tape wrapped around communities.  And the councillors that enacted all of the above will probably have been elected on a local landslide after they committed to slashing parking charges…

And now, back to reality.  You can read the Local Government Association’s initial response to the Portas report here.

Cumbernauld pictures: treasuredplaces.org.uk; blitzandblight.com

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My favourite books 33: Baldwin

Baldwin by Roy Jenkins

Collins 1987

This came from Hay, in a curious C-format edition.  Since Baldwin, I’ve read several of Roy Jenkins’ elegant and informed political biographies, but this was the first.  At 166 pages, it’s really more of an extended essay, which is probbaly aboput right for an enigmatic man who took Prime Ministerial office three times, after emerging without trace in the early 1920s.  Today, Baldwin is remembered for:

There was rather more to Baldwin than that, and to some extent he has been a victim of Churchill’s dictum about the history being written by the victors (precisely!).  

Roy Jenkins had more hinterland than a modern cabinet.  He was also a great liberalising Home Secretary, and was indirectly responsible for the eventual creation of the Liberal Democrat party.  It is hard to imagine where he would have sat in today’s restricted political sphere, but I’d recommend any of his biographical works.

You can buy Baldwin here.


Rainy days and Sundays

It’s a little hard to get your head around, but the UK has a five day working week ahead of it – for those without long memories, the last time Monday sat at the foot of a five-day hill was 11th April.

All well and good, but as well as getting back to work, it would be refreshing to have politicians and commentators get back to business as usual.   The swift succession of Royal Wedding, Bin Laden and Saying No to AV has created a sense of unreality – politicians haven’t had to think out loud about the economy or public services for weeks, but it would be great to stop the nursery squabbling, ditch the trivia, and knuckle down.

For what it’s worth, I’d like to see a functioning coalition again, which lives by the principle of Cabinet responsibility.  (David Laws would raise the tone a little, I’d like to think.)  Global politics, terrorism and the euro are well beyond my remit, but, domestically, I’d welcome a straightforward focus on key issues: rebooting the economy, and effecting the right balance between the private and public sectors.  The Prime Minister told us repeatedly when he entered office that this was a long-term project, but we’re seeing too many flip-flops, U-turns and eye-catching announcements, a situation hugely worsened during the grim and futile AV referendum.

My other main concern, from both a business and social standpoint, is education.  Our schools need to be creating entrepreneurs, engineers, artists and craftspeople.  This will take at least ten years to effect, but an educated, enthused and socially involved new generation would be a far greater prize than any short-term poll wins.

Otherwise, domestically, health is always emotive, always personal – it needs reforming, but with care.  And as to the rest?  My plea would be to avoid stupid conflicts.  The Blair government felt as though it wasted most of its first term on the hunting bill – a classic example of an issue about which two small minorities cared passionately, and the great majority of the population really wasn’t fussed.  (Rather like electoral reform, then.)  The recent proposal to raise a few bob from selling forests was another own goal.

An unlikely partnership of Eric Pickles and Vince Cable is apparently committed to cutting red tape for business.  This is an important step towards a broader and sustained economic recovery, so I’d like to make a plea to retailers: leave Sunday trading alone.  Not because the status quo is ideal – it isn’t, but because Sunday trading is a classic example of a polarising non-issue.  The benefits of longer hours would be most felt by the large supermarkets chains who (passim) are used but not loved by all.  Other sectors – fashion, home – would appreciate the opportunity to trade the hours they chose, but it isn’t make or break – longer Sunday hours wouldn’t have saved Focus DIY.  There is an opportunity, working with this government, to create a more business-friendly, even retail-friendly commercial environment – let’s not blow it by focusing on divisive issues, rather than those from which everyone can quietly and progressively benefit.

Of course, this isn’t a political blog, but we do live in a political world…