Here’s what the Portas review left out

Elizabeth Cox of nef argues that Mary Portas' review of the High Street makes many good suggestions, but misses out some curiously large targets


Elizabeth Cox is the head of local economies at nef (the new economics foundation)

Considering the dire straits our high streets currently find themselves in, Mary Portas’ review into their future made for surprisingly positive reading this morning.

Establishing once and for all that thriving town centres are key to rebuilding our economy is a vital step in the right direction.

We at nef (the new economics foundation) have been arguing that small, independent outlets are disproportionately beneficial to local economies for almost a decade.

Today’s review recognises this, setting out a variety of practical measures to encourage and support local businesses, from making it easier to reclaim vacant lots to an annual National Market Day.

Mary Portas shares our understanding that high streets should no longer merely be seen as places to shop, but somewhere for culture, leisure, learning and social opportunities. Her recommendations go a long way towards fulfilling that vision.

There are some notable omissions, however. Curiously the report was initially trailed as having at least thirty key recommendations, which then mysteriously dropped to 28 in the final version. We can’t say for sure what they were going to be, but we do have some suggestions:

29. Properly rein in the supermarkets

In the report itself, Portas identifies big retailers as a serious threat to the kind of diverse high streets we should be encouraging and protecting.

Having decimated local food markets over the last fifty years, there are ominous signs that supermarkets are set to cause even more damage to beleaguered high streets. More than a third of supermarkets’ floor space is now devoted to non-food sales, and particularly troubling is their sprawl into dentists’ and GP’s services – glue that holds our high streets together.

Given that this is acknowledged in the report itself, where are the calls to more stringently rein in big retailers? Those steps tentatively ventured by Portas do not go far enough: a moratorium on further edge and out of town supermarket developments would help, as would caps on store size and market share.

30. Establish a functioning local banking infrastructure

Something missed entirely by today’s review is the need for a local banking system to power the kind of local economies Portas clearly envisages.

nef’s work on finance and banking has repeatedly highlighted the unwillingness of big banks to lend to small businesses, regardless of how much extra money is pumped into the economy. For independent and small retailers to survive and thrive, they need a local banking system that understands and supports them.

31. Local high streets are good for the environment

We should be looking to reinvigorate the country’s high streets as part of our solution to the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil. The need to reduce our ever increasingly supply chains and begin living sustainably should be the most powerful argument for an economic revival of local areas.

See also:

Latest high street gloom shows urgent need for new planning system – Jonathan Schifferes, September 20th 2011

The High Street spiral of self-harm – Ann Pettifor, June 28th 2011

High and dry streets? – Jonathan Schifferes, June 17th 2011

Shocking news from the high street – Tony Dolphin, June 16th 2011

High streets should be transformed to benefit the community – Elizabeth Cox, February 16th 2011

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