Another year

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A year ago this week the government’s flagship approach to saving the high street was in full flow. It consisted of a competition on YouTube for town’s to come up with ideas to impress the self-styled Queen of Shops, Mary Portas.

The result was a frenzy of activity among self-appointed town teams, some noble, some sad, some downright laughable, although 29 went on to get £100,000 of taxpayers’ money.

What has the money done? The answer, increasingly, appears to be not very much. Much of it is still unspent and while some areas have made progress, the government is clearly having a serious rethink-hence its creation of the Future High Streets Forum.

The YouTube shenanigans, however, are beginning to look ever more and more like a case of fiddling while Rome burns and a serious misjudgement of the need to take urgent action to address the problems hitting the beleaguered high street.

Today a report from the chairman of some of the UK’s most powerful retailers attacks what it calls the “missed opportunity” of the Portas Review.

Chairmen from retailers including Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and M&S in a report by headhunters Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann, backed by the BRC, lament the “limited” work of the pilots and call for “radical” new action including addressing crucial issues such as the cost of doing business on the high street and the burden of taxation.

“Despite the new impetus Mary Portas’ recommendations gave the national debate, chairmen are frustrated at how little has been done in the review’s wake,” says the report.

The chairmen, who probably know even as much as Portas does about shops, say high streets “must be helped to evolve to meet long-term consumer trends, rather than preserved in aspic.”

“Attempting to hold back the shifting tide of consumer shopping habits is not the answer,” cautions Martin McColl chairman James Lancaster. “I’ve never seen a government be successful in bucking the market.”

Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis, wonders if the government set itself the wrong exam question: “The question we should be trying to address is not ‘how do we fill empty shops?’ but ‘how do we create vibrant local economies?’”

The new Future High Streets Forum, which is due to hold its first meeting soon, has already appointed Boots and Tesco to its board but the reality is the government should be inviting more to come forward.

When hugely successful companies like Sainsbury’s, M&S, Boots, Tesco and John Lewis start screaming for action it is time to listen and learn from the mistakes.

Otherwise there is going to be a fair bit of cringing in Whitehall when Portas’ TV show hits the screens on Channel 4 in the spring.

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