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What Kind of Support Do Our High Streets Need?

24/06/2012 17:57 BST | Updated 24/08/2012 10:12 BST

As any team competing in the Euro 2012 championships knows, having the right support behind you can make all the difference. But sometimes supporters can be a liability: they make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The town teams that have emerged from the Portas Review of the high street have had plenty of stadium-style support: there's no shortage of people rooting for them, from celebrities to local punters. But what kind of backing will turn their efforts into lasting change?

As with a good football team, the coaching makes the difference. A good manager helps the team understand what they up against, deploys the right strategy and tactics for the occasion, and makes sure all the players know their roles and play to their strengths.

Will the Portas pilots have the right strategy and tactics? Only if they understand the opposition.

What's been missing in the government's response to the Portas Review and in the support now offered by property and retail professionals is any clarity about what the town teams are up against and how they need to think about the challenge.

There are three big challenges any town team will need to face. First is the changing nature of retail: online and 'multi-channel' shopping will only increase, and will reduce the need for town centre shops.

Second is the reconfiguration of town centre property, with half of all high street and shopping centre leases due for renewal in the next three years. That will hasten the divide between prime retail centres populated by the national chains and the rest.

But third, and most important, is the continuing economic slump which will reduce ordinary people's spending power inexorably as wages fail to keep up with rising living costs. The longer that goes on, the longer any real recovery - the one you and I can feel in our pockets - will take.

That means high streets and town centres have to be ready for a very different reality that is starting to unfold. Will the support on offer help them do the hard thinking they need to?

Let's have a look. The bigwigs of the shopping centre and property industries are offering some free mentoring, and there'll be an opportunity to go to the British Council of Shopping Centres' annual shindig. More importantly, there's access to research from BCSC and the Local Data Company.

In other words, what the Portas pilots will get is an open door to the inner circles of the retail and property industries. This seems to be based on the premise that what they really need is advice on how to do retail and property better: it suggests the crisis facing many of our high streets is one of local expertise rather than structural change.

I'd like to think that the people who are lining up to offer support are people with a track record of bringing life and economic activity back to our high streets. I'd like to think they were people who were in the business of putting money back in local people's pockets and shifting the balance of power between the haves and have-nots.

But the evidence so far suggests the Portas pilots are being gently ushered into the inner sanctums of those whose thinking has helped bring us to the state we're now in. It might be the best way of neutering a new generation of high street activists. But will it stimulate the critical thinking we really need?