|© Copyright Downing Street and licensed for reuse. This is not an endorsement of my post.|
Mary Portas – Channel 4's Queen of Shops and the coalition government's retail champion – swung into town last month and was treated to something of a hero's welcome by shop owners in Margate's Old Town. Anyone who felt Mary Portas deserved being hailed as the saviour of our local High Street will be amply disappointed to discover that she has since admitted to KM Thanet Extra that the solution to Margate's empty shops could be to transform them into residential flats or business spaces. This begs me to ask the question: Did a visit by the Queen of Shops really do diddly squat for our local shops?
Leading a review into the future of the British High Street is one thing (which aims to 'bring back the bustle to our town centres' as her official website states), but to swan about calling herself a shopping guru while at the same time admitting that opening shops isn't her prerogative makes me feel as if her visit was little more than a shallow PR stunt. What exactly was the point of getting some consumer-friendly reality TV personality to spring this load of flannel on us? If he were alive today, they might as well have hired Fred Dibnah to do a tour of Margate only to tell us the solution is to raze the whole bloody lot to the ground.
Of course, I don't agree with Dibnah's philosophy of demolition. I'd love to see Margate's High Street be completely regenerated, with new shops popping up by the dozen, but it seems to me that Mary Portas's comments only add to the suggestion that local shops have no real future ("many towns nowadays are over-retailed," she says). This taps into a sense of defeatism, the idea that Westwood Cross has won the war and that any shop which doesn't happen to be a chain store isn't worthy of our attention, so we might as well build ghettos of rented accomodation instead. To that, I say nonsense. As acute as the UK's housing needs may be, if the price we have to pay for more living spaces is the monotony of soulless shopping precincts, then I think we should disagree with Portas's comments.
I'm aware that Margate is still ranked as one of the UK's worst High Streets with 36% of its retail premises remaining shut, even though its reputation as a 'ghost town' has since been usurped by Leigh Park in Hampshire. But just look at Margate Old Town and see how fast those shops have flourished since the opening of the Turner Contemporary. What's to suggest that this won't create a domino effect towards the top-end of town that Mary Portas claims is "dying"?
As far as regeneration goes, simply turning old shops into flats or offices for business hire seems to be the easier (and possibly most profitable) option in the short-term. But the real long-term challenge would be to lobby central government for the right to relieve business rates in the UK's most deprived high streets to encourage local entrepreneurs to set up independent shops, free from the tyranny of corporate multinationals. Would Mary Portas be willing to lend her name to that, I wonder? Or would she be too busy trying on frocks?