Just over a year ago I met a charming woman who wanted to pick my brains about the TV show she was producing. Mary Queen of the High Street aired for the first time this evening, following the author of the Portas Review on her quest to inject new life into failing town centres.
The producer at Optomen, the company behind the Channel 4 show, wanted to know how high streets could be "transformed" in time to meet the TV schedules. What kind of big bang actions would turn around failing towns?
We talked a bit about the planning process and local democracy, among other things. It was clear the TV company hadn't considered that planning decisions shouldn't be fast-tracked to meet the requirements of the production timetable. We talked about community involvement. The idea that you work with people to build consensus and ownership of local action didn't really fit either. It was obvious I didn't really understand the needs of TV producers or viewers.
My brief brush with Optomen told me what to expect. Entertainment, doubtless; insights into the lives of traders and shopkeepers too. Lots of failing shops. Reality TV, like newspaper headlines, can give you important information. But it will never tell the whole story.
Those involved in the towns and streets featured in Mary Queen of the High Street -- Roman Road in Bethnal Green, Margate in Kent, and Liskeard in Cornwall -- will tell you there's much of the story that has been left on the cutting-room floor, and much more of the story that never made it to camera at all.
We should give Mary Portas and Channel 4 a cheer for keeping the high street in the headlines (and as Chris Wade writes, we should acknowledge the energy that's been generated). We should be pleased that the medium of television gets the issue in front of many more people than the research papers of academics or the lobbying of politicians.
But we really shouldn't expect the TV series to change much, any more than we should have expected Grant "golden tickets" Shapps to change much. The big issues facing our high streets will still be there for months and years to come: the fact that we have around one third too much retail space in most towns, the problems with a property market that too often prefers to leave places empty rather than use them creatively, the spinelessness of many local authorities in challenging bad planning applications, the penchant of national government for cheap headlines rather than strategic support.
And it doesn't much matter that the TV series won't change anything. The best it can do is put the issue on the agenda, and Mary Portas, like her or loathe her, can't be faulted for generating headlines. The worst it can do -- and has done in some places - is to fracture fragile relationships which now need careful rebuilding. That was avoidable and lessons should be learned.
When the chatter and hype has died down, we will be where we always were: facing a future in which many, if not most, of our high streets need to change to survive. And that's an opportunity to do things differently: to shift patterns of consumption to support local producers, to give creative people access to unused private and public spaces, to value the local. The challenge isn't 'saving' high streets that are dying: it's reclaiming them and reshaping them for the communities they should serve.