Croydon received a £100,000 government grant last year after programme makers involved with tonight’s new Mary Portas Channel 4 series had named Surrey Street on a list of markets that they wanted included in the scheme.
Mary Queen of the High Street starts its three-part series tonight, although while Croydon was among the towns chosen by the local government department to receive the six-figure grant for the Portas Pilot, aimed at reviving ailing high streets, Surrey Street will not feature strongly in the programmes.
According to a report in The Guardian, television producers involved with the new Portas TV series sent a list of their favourite locations to the Department for Communities and Local Government when it was picking key locations – including Croydon – to receive more than £2.5 million of public grants.
As Inside Croydon observed last July, soon after Croydon’s bid was announced as being successful: “It is difficult not to view the Portas scheme as anything other than a state-sponsored budget for a reality TV show. That much was plain by the retail ‘guru’s’ petulant reaction when questioned in Margate, another of the winners of the modest seed funding for high street regeneration.
“‘You either let the cameras in with me or I go back on the train and some other town gets it,’ Portas threatened local traders in Kent at a public meeting last month, as if the money being provided was in her gift.”
Portas, Channel 4 and the production companies involved have rigorously denied any involvement or influence in the grant selection process.
But The Guardian has discovered the role of the TV producers through a Freedom of Information request which obtained a chain of emails.
Grant Shapps, the local minister in charge of the scheme when the markets were being chosen, was clearly aware of the problem his department might have if it appeared that the government was effectively seed-funding the TV company’s production budget. Shapps wrote to Portas saying that there would have to be “clear blue water between the selection of the pilots and the television show. This will be best achieved by me selecting the pilots, with Yellow Door and Optomen having no involvement”. Yellow Door is Portas’s company, Optomen the production company.
The Portas team had nonetheless drawn up its list of favoured locations.
And they were keen to share that list with the ministry. According to The Guardian report, on April 13 last year, at a crucial time in the selection of the pilot areas, “a Portas agency director emailed Shapps’s private secretary to say: ‘We already have our proposed 12’.”
Four days later, in came another email from the Portas offices. “We have now done some early reviewing of the entries with Mary and have come to an early shortlist from our end.” Helpfully, attached was a list of 13 towns. So public-spirited of them.
David Morris, the senior civil servant handling the bid selection, did a suitable piece of arse-covering by responding: “We need to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest between pilot selection and the TV show – which are separate projects.”
But as the newspaper reports, when the 371 applications from across the country were whittled down to the first 12 schemes to receive government cash under the Portas Pilot project, three of them came from Yellow Door’s list of preferred high streets: Market Rasen, Stockport… and Croydon.
This was in May 2013, just a few months after Croydon had been seen in flames on televisions around the world during the 8/8 riots.
It does not take much to imagine how a TV producer might want to utilise this recent history to the benefit of their programme.
Yellow Door, Optomen and Channel 4 all told The Guardian that they “strongly deny any attempt to influence” the selection.
Yet there were other emails sent to the DCLG, after the first tranche of markets had been chosen, when it became known that Roman Road in east London had been omitted. Optomen’s email made no attempt whatsoever to influence the department by stating that Channel 4 “loved” the idea of renovating an East End market. “Social history is currently really popular on television,” the production staff gushed, helpfully.
In another email, they wrote, “Roman Rd is on top of our list and we’re still hopeful that all our towns are part of the government selected towns”.
According to The Guardian, Roman Road eventually got a grant, and it features in tonight’s opening programme in the series, too.
Portas’s angry exchange with the traders in Margate, as reported last summer, seems to have also caused the department some concern, since it became apparent that Mary Portas, the government’s “retail guru”, would be available to advise only those areas used for the TV show. “I am aware of two pilot areas where they have been told – one by your office and one by Optomen that they would only get Mary’s time if they signed up for the TV series,” the worried civil servant wrote to the producers.
Portas announced later in the summer that she would not, after all, be “personally involved” in supporting the winning bids. Such a loss.
In Croydon, a year since the grant was made, there is little sign of any real progress for the hard-pressed street traders in Surrey Street and Church Street, as the pilot scheme’s “team” now seems to be focusing on activities in Exchange Square.
Original plans to spend £30,000 out of the £100,000 grant in one year on an administrator have been scaled back to half that figure after it was exposed by Inside Croydon. However, £5,000 of Portas Pilot money has been paid, towards the £10,000 cost of painting a mural in an pedestrian tunnel that lies outside the actual project area.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour’s shadow local government minister, told The Guardian: “The government promised their Portas Pilots scheme would lead the way for proper regeneration on the high street. Now it appears the real intention of this competition was to mask the government’s abject failure to support businesses at the heart of our communities.”
Meanwhile, at Channel 4 and various TV companies, a damage limitation exercise has gone on. A spokesperson for Mary Portas told The Guardian: “Any suggestion that Mary was involved in influencing the government’s selection of Portas Pilot towns is categorically untrue.”
They claimed that an “enthusiastic” former employee was responsible for the emails to the government department. “There was no influence by Yellow Door on the selection of the Portas Pilot towns whatsoever.
“Mary’s work preparing the Portas review for the government, and her subsequent and ongoing advice, is unpaid. In July last year Mary let the government know that she was stepping back from personal involvement in the second round of Portas Pilot towns. This in no way diminishes from her commitment to the high street campaign.”
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “We have always been completely clear that … Mary Portas had absolutely no role in choosing the towns, and that their status as Portas Pilots was in no way dependent on their participation in any show.”
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon – 267,670 page views (Nov 2012-Apr 2013)
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