Portas heads in the right direction

Mary Portas' report for BIS on how to revive UK high streets was released today and sets out a clear plan to help high streets compete in a retail landscape that has been completely transformed by the growth of supermarkets, super malls and the internet.

Her overriding recommendation is that we need to do everything we can to increase footfall to our high streets. Businesses will inevitably follow customers. She compared high streets to shopping centres, which begin by courting the anchor tenants, such as John Lewis or Marks & Spencer with a track record of attracting shoppers. Get them in and other retailers will flock. For small centres like Brockley Road or Lewisham Way, this obviously isn't an option, but what we can do is focus on other types of enterprise that draw people out of their homes. In particular, she emphasised the power of street markets, gyms and creches as businesses that the internet and out of town sites can't compete with.

To do that, she says Councils need to relax use class rules to make it easier for units to swap between retail and other uses.  However, she also argues that too many businesses of one type can have a damaging effect on a high street's attractiveness, which is something that many BC readers (and BC) have been arguing for years - a couple of betting shops are fine, dozens are detrimental to a high street's viability. It's interesting to note that she mentions chicken shops specifically and argues that a special use class should be created for bookies, to make it easier to control numbers:

One of the biggest unnecessary restrictions on business seems to be the use class system, which makes it difficult for buildings to have different uses and to change uses. For example it should be straightforward to convert to or from the D2 (leisure) class; and use Local Development Orders to remove these and other requirements. This would have a big impact on the number of empty properties and encourage more creative use of second, as well as first, loor spaces on our high streets.

There is currently a 13 week target for processing planning applications but to drive this we could 
publish the average length of time it takes to get a change of use by local authority. This would send a real signal to business about how easy it is to do business in different areas.

I do think there need to be limits, though. What I really want to see is diversity on our high streets. 

When a high street has too much of one thing it tips the balance of the location and inevitably puts off potential retailers and investors. Too many charity shops on one high street are an obvious example of this. Funnily enough, too many fried chicken shops have the same effect.

Useless landlords (which this part of South East London suffers from) are another target, with recommendations including further disincentives to landlords to leave shops empty, a public register of high street landlords (which would certainly help Brockley entrepreneurs work out who owns some of the dormant shops around the area) and more use of compulsory purchase orders.

Freeing up parking through free CPZs on high streets (which has worked well in Honor Oak) is another recommendation, while she urges Councils to put more effort in to making high streets "accessible, attractive and safe."

In sum, it reads like the BC manifesto and even if it is not adopted by national government, we hope that it will be an inspiration for Lewisham Council. Please let us know what you think. Read the report here.