Portas Pilot has been a flop, admits scheme’s ex-chair

The Portas Pilot project, intended to revive business in Croydon’s ancient Surrey Street Market, has been a failure.

In disguise: maybe Mary Portas does not want to be recognised as a "High Street guru"?

In disguise? Maybe Mary Portas does not want to be recognised as a “High Street guru”?

That’s effectively the admission of Mary Portas, Prime Minister David Cameron’s “retail guru” and self-proclaimed “Queen of the High Street”.

It is also the view of one of Portas’s growing band of critics, and it is the implicit view of the chair of the Croydon Portas Town Team, who has resigned that position admitting to “frustrations” in failing to get anything done.

It is not just the Portas Pilot in Croydon – where 18 months ago the local government department doled out £100,000, as it did with 26 other such schemes around the country – that has failed. But Portas denies that the failure is anything to do with her.

And the ex-chair of the Croydon team, who is now spending more time running his pay-day loan shop on Surrey Street, says it isn’t his fault or that of his committee, either.

Kez Hassan, who had volunteered for the Town Team role when public money was being made available, did mention in an interview this morning that he had written to “Big” Eric Pickles, the local government minister, and his colleague, Grant Shapps. Neither of whom had bothered responding, and neither of whom bothered to accept an invitation to visit Surrey Street to see the work being done with the public money that they had dished out.

A civil service flunky had answered, apparently, telling Hassan and his chums that they needed to resolve matters locally. So the failure of the Portas Pilot scheme is clearly not the fault of Pickles or Shapps, and evidently is not their problem, either.

Inside Croydon has long been sceptical about the premise of the Portas Pilots in reviving Britain’s High Streets. For a start, 27 grants of £100,000 always looked to be too little, too late. The Pilots would be powerless to influence, never mind change, some fundamentals that businesses are crying out to have changed, such as local car parking regimes or the levels of business rates being paid.

Then there is the unenlightened self-interest. Portas looked to be getting help with a production budget for a TV series from the government. The scheme smacked of a cheap publicity stunt by the government desperate to be seen to be doing something, anything, with a modest outlay. And who stood to gain most from the involvement of some local business people in channeling the funds that became available?

Above all, there is the flaw in the basic premise: has the era of retail on the High Street, in a business model established in Medieval times, come to an end, as increasingly people shop online, at chain supermarkets or in mega-malls, such as the £1billion Hammersfield development planned for Croydon?

Croydon's Surrey Street market: down to 40 per cent occupancy

Croydon’s Surrey Street market: is now down to 40 per cent occupancy, worse than when the Portas Pilot began

Portas was dragged before a Commons select committee yesterday, and did her petulant TV star act, sulking at the sheer audacity of these elected representative to summons her to parliament and expect her to answer a few questions about her role in the whole misfiring episode.

Behaving like a designer label version of Violet Elizabeth Bott, Portas told the MPs that she wished she’d never put her name to the project “because I’ve taken a huge bashing for work I did for nothing which is quite simply unfair”. Fortunately, she stopped short of sqweaming and sqweaming until she was sick.

Somehow, Portas seems to have forgotten that she, through her production company, managed to squeeze the commissioning of an entire TV series out of the scheme. There has even been evidence that her producers put pressure on the government department over the selection of some of the towns for the Portas Pilot, on the grounds of which would make better telly. Croydon was shown to have been selected on that basis.

Portas’s mood at yesterday’s committee had not been helped because she is no longer the only “show” on the High Street. On Sunday, Bill Grimsey, the former head of Iceland (the freezer chain, not the country) had called her plans “little more than a PR stunt”. Grimsey must have been reading Inside Croydon, or speaking to traders in places such as Margate, where Portas’s production team had made such a bad impression.

Tomorrow, Grimsey publishes his own blueprint for the future of the High Street, which includes the proposal of a 0.25 per cent levy on retailers with turnovers of more than £10million, to create a £500 million development fund for the High Streets. In other respects, Grimsey’s ideas differ from Portas’s “vision” in that they acknowledge that we live in 2013, and not 1963.

In front of the committee of MPs, Portas discovered some humility. “I am not the saviour of the High Street,” she admitted. “I cannot do this on my own. I am the champion of it… I do this because I believe in High Streets and I believe they are an important social infrastructure.”

Grant Shapps: distanced himself from the failed Portas scheme

Grant Shapps: government minister has distanced himself from the failed Portas scheme he helped set up

Interestingly, she indicated that she did feel that she had been hung out to dry by government – by Shapps and by his boss, Pickles. “I suppose I wasn’t used to politics,” she said.

Portas went for the “Nuffink to do wiv me, guv” defence.

“I don’t work for Portas Pilots… it’s not my scheme, they are a government initiative.” Nor, she said, was she responsible for the way that local schemes spent the money they had been given.

In Croydon, that includes a four-figure sum spent on painting a mural on an underpass, and nearly £16,000 to stage a handful of baking competitions and to “improve” Exchange Square, all very handily on the doorstep of a business that happens to be owned by a (now former) member of Croydon’s Portas Pilot Town Team.

Only after Inside Croydon highlighted that nearly one-third of the £100,000 public grant was ear-marked by Hassan’s “team” to be spent on running their own committee and for hiring office space (conveniently, with a business run by one of the Town Team members) was that element of the Croydon Portas Pilot’s budget revised.

“I don’t think the pressure should be on me about what’s been done, the pressure should be on the government,” Portas said.

Portas said she had written to the prime minister urging a speedier response to the problems on the high street and that he had sent her a letter saying the issue was a “priority”. But she said she didn’t believe the problem was truly a priority for David Cameron.

The more Portas said yesterday, the more she confirmed that the whole Pilot thing had been, very much, a mere PR stunt. “The recommendations could have been put into a much clearer framework or structure to give towns a guide,” she said, “because some of the towns received the money and didn’t know what to do with it.”

This was something which Hassan confirmed today when speaking on BBC Radio London. “At the beginning, we were naive to think we could spend the money how we wanted to,” Hassan said.

Hassan said that he felt that the pilots were a worthwhile thing to do, and called for “serious business people” – like himself, presumably – to be allowed to determine how the public money is spent. This reflects some of the criticisms Inside Croydon has heard from traders on Surrey Street, who claim not to have seen any benefits from it for their businesses.

A scheme to establish a start-up loan fund has stalled, while Surrey Street seems to being dying on its feet. The market is down to just 40 per cent occupancy – worse than before the Portas Pilot was established. Shapps and Pickles are not the only ones who have been giving Croydon’s market a wide berth. Nothing has been seen of Mary Portas in Croydon since she attended a Z-list celebrity-style launch.

In any case, what entrepreneur would want to stake everything that they have to move into the market, when they can be under-cut by the proliferating Tesco Express, Sainsbury’s and other chain supermarkets, with the local council’s planning committee unable to control such developments? Or when nearby a new food hall is about to open in what was once Alders? Or a £1 billion mega-mall with parking space for thousands of cars could be opening in the next four or five years?

The Independent on Sunday penned an editorial comment at the weekend about the state of the country’s High Streets: “We do not want to end up, as so much of America has done, with mile after mile of sterile suburb, whence residents drive to air-conditioned malls, with no sense of place or people in between. But the way to avoid that fate is to think more imaginatively about high streets and public spaces, rather than trying to re-create the early closing days and queues at the butchers of yesteryear.”

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1 Response to Portas Pilot has been a flop, admits scheme’s ex-chair

  1. I hate to say I told you so, but I did, here on Inside Croydon, on May 8 this year.
    Trying to revive high street shopping is flogging a dead horse: you know it, I know it and the government knows it too.
    But I am surprised how quickly the present ‘initiative’ has come to grief. I assumed no doubt in common with Big Eric Pickles, that this little wheeze would still the tongues of the chattering classes until after the next General Election.
    But our Eric has now been hoist with his own petard (sorry, I don’t want to picture that either). Politicians only have themselves to blame.
    Instead of wasting public money trying to raise the dead they should be telling the electorate unequivocally that we have all moved on in our shopping habits and that no amount of subsidy, either in the form of low rents, rate rebates, or free parking, will breathe life into this seriously decaying corpse.
    For those of your loyal readers who wish to know more may I warmly recommend a television programme with the unprepossessing title: Robert Peston Goes Shopping.
    In it the BBC’s business editor sagely charts fundamental and irrevocable changes in Britain’s retaining habits since 1945.
    The first of three programmes was broadcast last night (Monday) but is readily available on the iplayer. It explains in detail how we reacted to new ways of shopping at much keener prices offered by the likes of M&S, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Dixon’s; how we overwhelmed their stores – first in high streets, then in shopping malls or out of town – with our enthusiasm to buy what they had to sell.
    There is no going back. Croydon’s future as a retailing centre, and the boost it will bring to the local economy, rests with Hammerson and Westfield.
    The most positive thing Croydon Council can do with secondary shopping areas is to change the planning regulations to allow owners to redevelop them to meet the borough’s chronic shortage of truly affordable housing.

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