Sunday, 30 October 2011

ANY PORTAS IN A STORM

© 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?

5 comments:

  1. Ms Portas may have a point though... If people wanted to shop in Town Centres they would... Should folk not have a choice? Looking at the retail figures for Lake Side..Blue Water.. Westwood X, and comparing with town centres like our three, Dartford, Gravesend, Gillingham etc, It is clear that, mostly , the public want out of town shopping.

    Should we try to stop the public shopping where they want or let them make their own mind up?

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  2. My point is, if choice is your beacon, then why can't we have in-town AND out-of-town centres? The out-of-town centres can be populated with the big multinational corporations, while in-town centres can be hubs for local entrepreneurship, providing us with quality consumer goods that we aren't likely to find in Tesco or Asda and (whisper it) might even be superior?

    In my experience, people only want out-of-town shopping because multinational chain stores can give them special discount offers that independent local shops simply can't rival. People will always gravitate towards the cheapest mass-produced option and multinational outlets take advantage of this and can do so on account of their massive profit margins.

    For that reason, I believe local businesses deserve more support because it's not fair that corporate giants can hog market share while our local high street shops suffer, pummelled as they are by high business rates and knowing that their customers are distracted by the mass media advertising saying how 'every little helps' and convincing them it's not worth shopping anywhere else.

    To me, the idea that people aren't interested in local shops and would rather shop in Asda, for instance, is negligible. To use an unrelated example, people like music, but not every musician they like is signed to Sony BMG. Some might be signed to independent record labels, such as Rough Trade or Domino. Just because the majority of people may buy artists signed to Sony BMG or a major label doesn't mean that independent labels don't deserve to exist. The same principle applies to shops.

    Choice has to be all-encompassing, Ken. Just 'cos some bright spark says 'oh, this shop is closed, obviously there's no demand, let's build flats instead' doesn't mean it's right. I'd prefer to see it in terms of 'oh, this shop is closed, that means there's a window for consumer demand, how can we help nurture it?' After all, shops create jobs. Flats don't.

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  3. Personally I'm always far more saddened when shops in villages close. I cycled through Woodnesborough (near Sandwich) today, & since the post office / general store closed the place has become little more than a collection of houses with a pub, the same as Acol & Sarre (though I believe there's also a hairdressers in the latter), & even Garlinge High Street is a very different place from when I lived there during the late 80s & it had 3 supermarkets, a post office, two greengrocers, a butchers & a hardware shop - all gone, & (ironically) forced out of business by the bigger stores of Margate. The impact to these small places is far more important to me than whether or not half of a town high street becomes residential.

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  4. I think you're right Luke. Talking to the shop owners at Margates old town there is great enthusiasm for the area and they all work together as a community to try and raise it's profile.

    I think the future of Margate is in Artisan shops and businesses and if you look at how the Turner Contemporary and Margates old town compliment each other in an 'artisan' way I think it will slowly be appreciated as the area for more hand made, special, abstract pieces of art, food, restaurants etc. Once that reputation is earnt it's only a matter of time before other artisan companies want a piece of the action and it will spread out to the high street etc.

    There is no doubt that the high street has a future, I mean, Broadstairs is still popular and there is no reason why Westwood cross can't stay with mainstream brands and compliment the high street, it's just going to take time and persistence from locals to make it happen and not just sit back and let flats take over... that's the worst thing that could happen in my opinion!

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  5. I wonder what most High Streets looked like during Victorian times? I suspect a mixture of shops & housing...

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