Mary Portas

Mary Portas

The government has relaunched its battle to save the high street with a new slimmed down group of industry leaders that no longer includes former high streets tsar Mary Portas.

Marcus Jones, the high streets minister, will oversee the first meeting of the streamlined Future High Streets Forum today, which he will co-chair with Boots supremo Simon Roberts.

However, there is no place at the table for Portas, whose 2011 report on the high street was the basis for the foundation of the forum in March 2013.

The government also announced that a major emphasis of the new-look group would be to explore how the amount of retail space in town centres could be shrunk to pave the way for other uses such as housing.

Portas is not the only prominent retail name missing from the line-up with Tesco, Costa Coffee and McDonald’s among a raft of businesses also dropped from the forum.

In an exclusive interview. Jones told The Grocer he wanted to shift the focus of the government’s efforts to less bureaucracy at the top and more involvement at grass roots from major retailers such as the big supermarkets.

He said previous efforts on the high street, such as the Portas pilots and town teams, had suffered because they were too often dominated by well-meaning but poorly resourced independent traders.

“I wanted to have a smaller executive body overseeing things, But it’s vital we can get the support from the big retailers on the front line,” he said.

“Over many years we have tended to have town centre partnerships and forms made up of independent retailers. Quite often store managers of the larger stores are not engaged at local level. I want to get the major retailers much more involved in a consistent way.”

As well as major changes to the forum leadership, Jones is also planning a shift in the focus of its initiatives, including work on how high streets can reduce their dependency on retail by turning over failing outlets to residential use as well as looking at initiatives to boost evening entertainment and leisure use in high streets. He said it would also continue previous work on how stores can take more advantage of digital development such as click & collect.

The forum will also oversee the government’s Great British High Streets Competition, which is due to announce its winners next week, having attracted more than 200,000 public votes.

The latest move comes with retail leaders ramping up the pressure on Chancellor George Osborne to tackle what many claim is the biggest threat to the high street in the form of the huge burden from business rates, when he announces his Autumn Statement on Wednesday.