Wednesday, 14 December 2011


It would be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the Portas review of the future of high streets. I'm no fan of celebrity-based policy development. These issues are complex, there are significant changes in play that are not going to be reversed, some of the remedies that have been bandied about are implausible (to put it mildly), and a number of powerful vested interests are busy grinding axes. However, in this case, her core message is important, and she is helping to get a real problem on the public agenda . It's the specific recommendations that need unpicking.

"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 
I know that retailers tend to obsess about parking issues, but her brief was to promote the high street, not encourage use of cars. So I don't understand why the report didn't recommend something more along the lines of  "Local authorities must be encouraged to integrate public transport, parking and highways policy in a way that ensures that the high street is easily accessible to the whole community".

Something a bit less prescriptive, and a bit more local.


Craig Loftus said...

> She recommends that local areas
> should implement free parking schemes

> encouraged to integrate public
> transport, parking and highways
> policy in a way that ensures that the > high street is easily accessible to
> the whole community

My first thought was why not free buses? There are all sorts of ways that careful design of the free fare zones could encourage people into the town centre whilst not providing the same benefits to people from other towns. Whilst providing various other social benefits for the families, disadvantages and disabled etc.

As you say, her recommendations seem both simplistic and overly prescriptive. Just rather unimaginative.

townmouse said...

In fairness to Ms Portas she was a retailer first, and became a celebrity on the back of it.

This report demonstrates just how far we have to go with cycling in this country - it's just completely not on the radar for anyone but the cyclists. Trying to argue against car parking on the grounds that cyclists generally spend more (well, in the Netherlands anyway) just gets you completely baffled looks. And the thought that anyone might shop by bus is clearly beyond comprehension. Surely only poor people use buses, and they've no money anyway. QED.

Am beginning to wonder if there's time to emigrate to the continent before the Conservatives pull us out of Europe altogether...

gom1 said...

I'm neither a retailer, nor a cycling campaigner (so I'm making this up as I go along). But I imagine that "reduced car parking will be good for your business" is going to be a tough sell. Their biggest worry at present is likely to be level of demand, so "We are keen to improve access to your shop for the whole community" sounds as though it will be more appealing to me. On that basis there must be a several reasons why town-centre retailers would support initiatives designed specifically for cyclists (or pedestrians, or users of public transport come to that). More people passing their shop, with more time to browse; attracting a particular demographic (families, young professionals, hunger for cake); fewer people travelling out of town to shop; more attractive town centre environment, suffering less congestion. There could be some local specifics as well. Perhaps office workers are more likely to use town centre shops (and less likely to use out-of-town) if they travel to work on a bike rather than a car; if the government change the way business rates are allocated, then lower highway costs might help reduce business rates. Less need to cater for cars might allow improved access to shops for deliveries, etc. Bike shops, of course, are a bit of a special case.

Robert said...

One can't help but wonder whether Ms Portas has a book out for xmas.

Tom said...

The simpler solution is to use local planning policies to block further out of town shopping centres, block massive supermarket car parks and block any large general car parks outside town centres. They're bad for the town centre economy, for social policy and the environment, so why put up with them?

A really imaginative council might look for ways to (legally) disadvantage out of town leeches as well.