the Portas review of the high street–town centre management issues

I intend to take a critical look at all the 28 recommendations in the report, but to keep the post length manageable I will do this over a series of posts.

Before then a brief comment on the report overall. It is of course full of good intentions, but equally it is couched in the same jargonistic policy language as many such reports over the last 25 years from all parties. For example:

I want to see high streets where localism really delivers integrated action from all the relevant stakeholders. Local authorities, landlords, retailers and the public working together to really animate the spaces they occupy, creating and nurturing their own unique place. Local people as co-creators and not simply consumers. Councils as managers and enablers. Landlords as long-term investors. Businesses as stakeholders.

There are many unstated assumptions.

  • What is ‘localism’?
  • What is ‘integrated action’?
  • Who decides when a stakeholder is ‘relevant’?
  • What is meant by ‘animation’ Or ‘co-creation’?

I’ll pick up some of these questions – and no doubt others – as I work through the recommendations.

The recommendations

The first three relate to the management of town centres so I will consider them together. 

1. Put in place a “Town Team”: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets.

2. Empower successful Business Improvement Districts to take on more responsibilities and powers and become “Super-BIDs”

3. Legislate to allow landlords to become high street investors by contributing to their Business Improvement District

The idea of the ‘Town Team’  in Recommendation 1 comes from an analogy with big stores. From the report:

High streets should run more like businesses. And businesses are run on the basis of a strategic vision. However, unlike the sophisticated shopping malls or large retailers, high streets aren’t overseen by a single landlord or professional management body. Town centres are a melting pot of landlords, occupiers, councils and others all with their own interests. A lack of cohesion is one factor that has led to record vacancy rates and rock bottom footfall. Many are crying out for professional input and strategic vision.

If the high street was in single ownership, like a department store, it would have a vision, a high level strategy and direction, it would choose what it wanted in a particular space to fit with a vision and proactively target the businesses and services that were missing

She obviously believes the ‘melting pot of interests’ to be a source of problems whereas to my mind it is a source of strength. She offers no evidence that her perceived ‘lack of cohesion’  is a cause of high vacancy rates, which I believe are down to much wider economic factors. I certainly haven’t come across any comparison of performance between town centres with strong central management and those without, although this study concluded that “despite their lower budgets or lack of formal recognition, other models of TCM such as informal place management schemes or hybrids of formal and informal TCM schemes can often be just as effective in delivering positive outcomes for urban communities.”  In other words there are a range of approaches and no ‘one size fits all’ solution, which despite her protestations to the contrary are what the report offers.

From the report again:

Some local areas will need support. The Local Government Association could, for example, produce and promote best practice examples of how Town Teams have worked to renew and revitalise high streets around the country. This could include examples of where landlords, tenants and local authorities have worked together to successfully manage a local high street offer, and the key factors that have enabled this achievement. These could be structured to cover different types of towns (e.g. coastal, inner city, suburban, industrial, rural and market towns).

The rather patronising assumption implicit in this is that local businesses cannot do anything for themselves but need some external agency stepping in, an agency that in this case has nothing to do with retailing or even business.

The comparison with department stores and the idea that some central agency is needed overplay the importance of central direction. The problems facing town centres are multi-variate and interlinked. Changes to one aspect will affect others in unknown and unknowable ways. Centralised planning cannot work effectively in these circumstances. It is very often the source of problems, not a solution.

Making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither policy scientists, nor politicians nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes in several ways.

In the first place, past sequences of policy steps have given him knowledge about the probable consequences of further similar steps. Second he need not attempt big jumps toward his goals that would require predictions beyond his or anyone else’s knowledge, because he never expects his policy to be a final resolution of a problem. His decision is only one step, one that if successful can quickly be followed by another. Third he is in effect able to test his previous predictions as he moves on to each further step. Lastly he often can remedy a past error fairly quickly – more quickly than if policy proceeded through more distinct steps widely spaced in time.

The Science of Muddling Through, C E Lindblom (pdf)

Recommendations 2 and 3 relate to funding for this ‘Town team’ and for their proposals.

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are essentially a scheme under which traders volunteer to pay more tax, on the understanding that tax is put into their own local centre. It is still a centralist model –  retailers hand over some of their decision making – on marketing for example – to a committee, rather than simply cooperating with each other for mutual benefit. While the detachment of landlords from the operation of local businesses is a problem, since they see their business of property owning as something separate from the activities going on in those properties, I am not convinced that giving them rights in setting up a BID would be a positive step forward. Looking on the internet it is easy to find examples of properties in Devizes and similar towns on the market at higher rents than in towns like Bath or Salisbury. Commercial landlords need to recognise that the vitality of the town centre is an important factor in securing a good return on their investment in property, and automatic upward rent reviews can be counterproductive. Perhaps linking rents to turnover, at least in part, might be a way forward. Given the significant commercial portfolio of the Town Council they could begin to set an example in this area.

The concept of a BID also takes as a given the present system of setting Business rates nationally, without regard to local conditions, a system no better than a London based property owner setting rental levels in Devizes.

In summary, I agree that local town centre businesses working together for mutual benefit can only be a good thing. I also accept the wider point that the wider local community also needs to recognise they have a part to play. However in my judgement, the recommendations are too prescriptive and are founded in an idea of centralised control that doesn’t match with reality.

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Posted in Economy, Town Centre

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