The government is offering cash to help town centres get Portas pilots under way but criticism of its approach is growing

Mary Portas was in Australia tweeting about kooky cafés in Melbourne and informing followers about a forthcoming TV show on women’s underwear.

Meanwhile the government minister in charge was tweeting his proposals for a series of Portas pilots that will test the ideas the self-styled Queen of Shops has come up with to save the high street. Welcome to the world of retail planning in 2012.

Yet behind the scenes a more old-fashioned battle is raging about the latest moves in the Portas Review, while horror figures continue to emerge about the crisis facing the nation’s boarded-up shops. Two months after Portas announced her blueprint for town centre regeneration, fresh from sharing cups of tea with David Cameron who commissioned it, there is a sense of a business backlash.

Paul Wrigley, chairman of Majestic Wine and former executive at New Look, Debenhams and BHS, claimed the government should accept the irreversible “death spiral” of town centres, which, he claims, are increasingly irrelevant in the age of online and out-of-town shopping. Instead he urged a focus on housing and on nighttime economies.

Portas slammed Wrigley’s view as “hopelessly cynical”, but then last weekend came the intervention of local government minister Grant Shapps. In Willy Wonka style, he revealed plans for 12 town centres to win “golden tickets” - funding of £100,000 each to establish town teams that will test Portas’s ideas. Towns have until the spring to pitch their ideas on YouTube. Natch.

The government has yet to officially respond to the 28 proposals in the Portas Review, which ranks town teams as its number one idea, but it hopes the pilots will deflect criticism that it is fiddling while the high street burns. Figures released by the Local Data Company this week reveal Britain is blighted by 48,000 vacant shops. It warns that rampant supermarket expansion would make the near-15% of shops it says stand empty the tip of the iceberg. There is agreement that £100,000 a pop will on its own not save any high street but the consensus ends there.

Julie Grail, chief executive of British Business Improvement Districts (Bids), claims Portas and Shapps appear to have ignored her warnings that the pilots must be built around the 126 Bids already up and running, which have attracted more than £300m of private funding to revitalise ailing towns since growing out of the town centre partnerships programme of the 1990s. This year alone a further two dozen Bids are in the process of being put forward, from London to Manchester, and Grail claims the contest to launch town teams risks causing huge confusion between Bids, backed by long-established funding models, and ill-defined town centre teams with no sustainable funding model.

“Portas says we can’t return to the glory days of town centres but then there’s all this talk of a return to market days and that sort of thing,” says Grail. “But if town centre teams don’t have sustainable funding, how will they make any difference?

“There are massive structural problems that are not going to be solved by the retail industry.What are these groups of worthy people going to do?”

Encouraging the greater engagement of businesses is one task already highlighted in the review, according to Andy Godfrey, public policy manager for Boots. But he cautions: “What we don’t want is duplication of services and making an already complex process even more complicated.”

Others strongly defend the Portas pilots, claiming while Bids have succeeded in transforming many towns, other areas have floundered, town centre managers have been driven out and local authorities bypassed. “£100k isn’t going to last forever but it gives us a chance to pilot ideas,” says Martin Blackwell, chief executive of the Association of Town Centre Management. “The previous government awarded a group of the top Bids £52k each when it was in power. There were no criteria, no reporting, no lessons learnt. It was a complete waste of money. This process is about trying to look at what works and what doesn’t, in bigger towns, smaller towns, market towns, seaside towns, in areas where there are Bids and areas where there aren’t.”

The row over funding models is likely to be just one of many barriers. In the week that Little Chef went into pre-pack administration because one of its landlords would not agree to rent reductions, the pilots must somehow demonstrate they can bring together landlords. “It will be a miracle if someone can actually find a way of landlords of all sizes all working together,” admits Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Foundation, despite broadly welcoming the plans.

The proposals also risk being undermined if the government fails to tackle issues such as the “eye-watering” 5.6% business rates hike due to hit in April, says BRC director of business Tom Ironside.

But for those who say high streets should be left to die, the unlikely setting of Rotherham offers hope. One of the research stop-offs for Portas, it has transformed its town centre in a regeneration project that includes an indoor market and outdoor-themed markets that give Cambridge a run for its money. Over the past two years it has seen a net gain of 35 new businesses open, reduced its vacancy rate by 5% and is now contemplating a bid to become one of the first Portas pilots.

See YouTube for more.

On to a winner?

  • Golden ticket: 12 successful bids to receive £100,000 a pop
  • Town teams: to include landlords, retailers, councils and local communities
  • Location: government wants bids from high streets, smaller parades, market towns, new towns, coastal towns and suburban areas
  • Broadcast yourself: towns to apply via short films on YouTube, on or before 30 March