"I... fundamentally believe that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow."
Her core idea seems to be that high streets should be developed as an asset to the community, so that economic benefits flow from social benefits, rather than approaching things the other way round. This approach seems right to me, and an insight that deserves widespread support. She offers some creative ideas about how her vision might be achieved. But the report ends with a number of specific recommendations, and here things begin to fall apart a bit. There are 28 in total, and my general feeling is that they could have done with a bit more consideration of how best central government can influence policy at a more local level.
For example, she recommends that local areas should implement free parking schemes, and just use parking revenues to improve parking. Oddly, Portas seems to recognise the wider context. The section covering the issues is even headed "access to town centres" - but then she dives straight into a discussion of parking issues, ignoring the others. And finally concludes that the solution is that parking needs to be insulated from the wider context. This just doesn't make sense to me.
- Local authorities either need to generate additional income, or cut services (or both). Any money that doesn't come from parking will have to come from somewhere else. Retailers, and people who park cars have every right to plead that the impact should not fall on them. But everyone else has a right to make the same case. Parking provision costs money, so, in effect, providing free town centre parking is offering a local government subsidy to shoppers and retailers. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but if we push that issue up our ranking of priorities then something else goes down. I'm sure we all like the idea of having a vibrant town centre, but I doubt there is the same level of agreement about what we are prepared to give up to achieve it. Most importantly, resolving those trade-offs is the domain of local democracy, not Whitehall.
- Secondly, parking is just one aspect of local transport policy. Personally I avoid taking my car into a town centre because I want to avoid congestion - not the cost of parking. Every car that brings someone into the town centre is contributing to congestion, and makes town centre access more difficult for others. Because of where they live, or because of mobility problems, some people can only reach their local shops by car. Depending on the quality of the local road network, level of parking provision, and extent of the public transport network, offering free parking may make things no better, and could make things worse for shoppers and retailers. I'm sure there are examples where free parking would help, but I'm pretty confident that it's no panacea.
- Thirdly, town centres are not only competing with online, and out of town alternatives. They are also competing with each other. Visitors make a significant contribution to the health of some our most successful high streets. There is little future in encouraging a race to the bottom between neighbouring towns, based on the price of parking. If she is going to realise her vision, then neighbouring towns should be encouraged to compete on the quality of the experience, not prevented from doing so where her specific choice won't work
Something a bit less prescriptive, and a bit more local.