Is It Too Late To Save The High Street?

15/12/2011 14:45 | Updated 22 May 2015

Mary Portas, retail guru and Queen of Shops, is on a mission to save the nation's high streets, and earlier this week she delivered her David Cameron-commissioned report, which contains a 28-point plan to revitalise our town centres.

Following a seven-month investigation into the future of our town centres, she believes that we have reached "crisis point" with more than 25,000 shops closing since the millennium because out-of-town supermarkets, super malls and online stores have changed the way we shop.

The report has not been without criticism - after all, Mary has been cited as a controversial choice because her consultancy works with shopping centre developer Westfield. But I think her suggestions make a lot of sense.


"Many [high streets] are sickly, others are on the critical list and some are now dead," she says. "Unless urgent action is taken much of Britain will lose, irretrievably, something that is fundamental to our society."

Mary is realistic enough to admit that we'll never get back to the traditional high street that's populated by local butchers, bakers and greengrocers.

While artisan shops do booming business in affluent areas where people are happy to pay extra for organic or locally-sourced produce, most of us now prefer the convenience of doing our shopping all in one place, as cheaply as possible - or ordering it online and getting it delivered.

That's why Mary says that the high street has got to evolve and offer something different.

She admits that we should be cautious about letting supermarket chains, which now offer everything from food, clothing and electrical items to medicines, beauty treatments, opticians and doctor's surgeries, take over any more long-established high street services, but her main point is that we should aim to make our high streets a lifestyle, rather than retail, destination.

"We need to stop seeing our high streets as just shops," she says. "We now need to get people back into our high streets and that requires creating a place that is about enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising, wellbeing, health."

Along with free parking schemes, relaxed planning rules and changes in business rates to support small businesses, she also wants to implement a 'National Market Day' to bring back variety - and community spirit - to our high streets.

She also suggests that empty shops and offices could be turned into gyms, coffee shops, community centres and even schools, to help bring the bustle back.

And that's where her plans really hit the nail on the head - because it's the loss of community spirit that's our real problem.

The first time I went to America I, like most Brits, really struggled to adjust to the fact that nobody walks, everyone drives, and the shops are either superstores or malls, staffed by excessively friendly, but ultimately anonymous, staff.

After more than ten years in London I assumed that the UK was heading the same way, until I moved to the south coast and discovered that beyond the sprawling chains and superstores there are plenty of local businesses that do a great job of keeping community spirit alive.

Admittedly, these businesses are more likely to flourish on the side streets than the high streets - but my shopkeeper friends say that if there's not enough going on in towns to attract potential customers, and enough parking to accommodate them, they'll struggle to survive, too.

The traditional high street experience was as much about socialising as it was about what we bought or how much we spent, and the Portas review is geared towards rebuilding this experience.

If we follow Mary's recommendations, I don't think it is too late to save our high streets.

With the threat of a double-dip recession hanging over us, we're unlikely to be in a position to shop things better.

And while a trip to an out-of-town superstore is guaranteed to send our stress levels soaring, spending an hour catching up with friends in the local community is exactly what we need to lift our spirits.

By Ceri Roberts

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