So much for the forgotten high street. No fewer than 40 organisations met at Westminster to talk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Town Centres in March. The new Future High Streets Forum involves over 20 retailers, government departments and industry bodies, from Tesco to the National Market Traders Federation. There are many more besides.
And the latest saviour? Just weeks after infamously branding Britain’s high streets “medieval”, former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy became the front man for a Daily Telegraph campaign launched this week “to reinvent the high street”.
With self-styled Queen of Shops Mary Portas back on the case of the high street in a C4 TV series starting on 7 May, irritated business leaders claim the aim of the show is to heap “humiliation” on the towns involved, but has Sir Terry got any better ideas?
The Telegraph’s three-pronged campaign is much more succinct than the 28-point 2011 Portas Review, but in two key areas it’s in agreement: business rates and national intervention by supermarkets and councils to cut car park charges. “Supermarkets, local amenities and councils should come together to think how big, free car parks can draw people into town centres,” he says.
The All Party Town Centre Group this week met to discuss measures at national level to tackle parking. “The amount people spend on parking each year is actually quite low compared with other costs such as petrol and insurance,” adds Martin Blackwell, chair of the ATCM, which is co-ordinating the government’s £1m project to provide more support to the 27 Portas pilots and over 330 town teams. “But the impact of parking is very important psychologically. There are plenty of stories of drivers travelling 20 miles to avoid paying for parking.”
Sir Terry has also urged a rethink in areas not covered by Portas - such as night-time shopping. “Savvy retailers and landlords have woken up and smelt the coffee - quite literally,” he says, “investing in coffee shops, cinemas, restaurants, gyms.”
Adds one Forum member: “The fact is 27% of all transactions are not retail, they are part of the night-time economy. It didn’t exist, according to Portas.”
Nor did Portas’s 28 recommendations make reference to digital - yet this week an O2 survey showed one in seven people would not even step into a coffee shop unless it had free Wi-Fi. The ATCM has appointed a project manager to talk to mobile operators and other groups to harness smartphone technology for the high street.
In the meantime, after Portas called for multiples to mentor smaller traders, last week the government announced Alex Gourlay, CEO of the health & beauty division at Alliance Boots, was spearheading a move for more than 20 retailers to provide high-street champions, acting as mini Portas figures at local level.
Another case of too many cooks? “The fact so many people are now involved is not a bad thing,” says Blackwell. “There isn’t one thing we need to do 100% better, there are 100 things we need to do a bit better.”
So Sir Terry might find his views welcome after all.