Mary, Queen of the High Street
So another series of Channel 4’s Mary Queen of the High Street has come to a close and once again it’s time to pop down town and see what progress has been made. It’s a year since The Portas Review was handed to the government and still, despite Portas’ best efforts, her conclusions have been mainly ignored by bureaucrats with much huffing and puffing about the localism agenda that was supposed to breathe new life into communities and restore decision making to the grass roots.
At the time of its launch Portas said she wasn’t prepared to let her report end up gathering dust on a shelf in some government department, the fate of its fifteen predecessors. Having been sceptical initially I welcomed the twenty eight point vision that was the result of her deliberations, but from the very start I warned that politicians would adopt the sexy attention grabbing bits but kick the difficult stuff into the long grass.
So it has proved, with much vaunted competitions for meagre grants towards town teams making headlines, but the difficult stuff being ignored. However, Portas is nothing if not a fighter and has the chutzpah and the media presence to keep the issue alive on our television screens, hopefully keeping politicians on their toes to boot. Mind you they seem pretty immune to embarrassment to me – shrugging off their promises without a backward glance – so even Mary has a job on, and with no help from retail pundits who have been queuing up to give her a kicking. Personally, I may not like her style and find her programmes formulaic, but I can’t fault her energy!
The problem as I see it is that shopkeepers and customers alike are looking for a saviour – someone to magic all the nastiness away – and that isn’t going to happen without a paradigm shift. It took over a decade of greed, mismanagement and neglect for high streets to get this bad and it will take at least as long for them to be revived. Portas may come across as the pantomime dame of retail to some commentators but at least she has the presence to embarrass others into action. And that includes small retailers, who must shoulder their fair share of the blame for surrendering to complacency and cynicism.
Liskeard, which featured last in the series, seemed a pretty good example of all that is wrong with the high street. Not only were rent, rates, and parking a real problem as in most small towns, but the shopkeepers seemed to have surrendered all responsibility for their immediate environment to some higher power. Look how excited they all were when Portas ‘empowered’ them to clean up their own street. Hadn’t anybody ever thought of scrubbing their front step before? It appears not! The demise of the livestock market and the laissez fair approach to town planning – which had landed them with an out of town supermarket – had also contributed to their woes; sucking the life out of the centre – and most of the shopkeepers – or so it would seem. With few exceptions they appeared to have fallen into the familiar ‘somebody should do something’ mindset, and yet were deeply resentful when somebody did! That and the very ‘independence’ which is both the blessing and the curse of small business people looked destined to blight any thought of collective action.
But, to be fair they’re not small shop keepers because they’re marketing strategists, schooled in creating brand identity and fostering loyalty to it. Nor have they been rigorously trained, or selected for their special business aptitude. The big retailers are, plus they’re not hamstrung by feelings of loyalty or a sense of belonging. If a project fails, they simply walk away leaving their mess behind; small retailers just don’t see things in the same way as their bigger brethren! But apart from the obvious structural and conceptual barriers, the traders of Liskeard also appeared to lack leadership, motivation, and vision, or a channel for their rage against faceless landlords and unbending bureaucracy that renders them impotent. Portas herself came in for some flak for allegedly being in the government’s pocket, a charge she vehemently denied! Personally, I reckon she should give up trying to fix broken high streets single-handedly; her critics can stop kicking her for not being the saviour of their dreams; and she can get on with doing what she does best – irritating people!
If we really want to save the high street we should encourage her to irritate the hell out politicians, landlords, bureaucrats, and the forces of ubiquity and mediocrity that have brought us to this shameful state. Isn’t it time the dust was blown off the Portas Review, and politicians got to grips with series issues contained within? Come to that why aren’t all shopkeepers demanding an explanation from government?