At some point in the next few weeks, Mary Portas, the Queen of Shops, will reveal her thoughts on how to revive our ailing town centres.
Whatever she says will no doubt be pulled to bits by the various factions who strut and fret across this particular stage, so it would be useful to consider what yardsticks we should apply when evaluating her recommendations.
First, if a general vision is offered of what the high street should look like in future, will it be compelling to enough consumers to make it viable? Will it offer a range of shops and other services that people will find more attractive than what they can get in a suburban or out-of-town retail park? Consumers should be judged by what they do, not by what they say when questioned in opinion polls and the like.
Second, is the strategy for delivering that vision on the ground realistic? No two high streets are alike. Some are far gone in decline, others have just started to go, and still others appear to be holding their own. Is this a one-size-fits-all approach or a broad framework of processes and resources that can be adapted to a variety of local situations?
One might also hope there is a scarcity of exhortatory words such as “must” and “should” and more use of “what”, “how”, “where”, “when” and “who”.
Third, who or what will actually do the delivering? The “localism” tendency implies that local authorities will, in practice, have to do much of the driving but they have fewer resources now than before and some of the existing rejuvenation schemes have already been truncated or abandoned.
Elsewhere, the local infrastructure, which is often led by an enterprising town centre manager, functions well especially in a Business Improvement District. So why not just roll out more and more BIDs? One reason is that by no means every locality could handle one and, in any event, BIDs are not an instant get-out-of-jail card. They have their own limitations.
Finally, how much weight is placed on helping the 10,000 or so new retail businesses that will appear on our high streets this year? If these nascent retailers have the confidence to establish a new business in an unpromising climate, who will back them when they are in need of money and maybe technical assistance?
Answers on a postcard please.