The Portas Review was commissioned in 2012 and reported back in December. The mission was to review the state of Britain’s high streets and propose a plan of action. What Mary found was the same problems were seen everywhere and the same complaints about supermarkets, parking, landlords and planning existed. However she recognised that for many of Britain’s high streets the clock is ticking. The situation needs to be turned around by their own initiative in responding to the prevailing conditions and not just bemoaning the situation. Future success relies on having a clear and optimistic view of the future and bringing together local communities – councils, landlords, retailers and consumers – to make it happen.
The main recommendations which are immediately relevant to Ashbourne are:
1. Put in place a “Town Team”: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets
2. Establish a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business
3. Make it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason why not
4. Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes
that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking
5. Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible,
attractive and safe
6. Large retailers should support and mentor local
businesses and independent retailers
7. Developers should make a financial contribution to
ensure that the local community has a strong voice
in the planning system
8. Run a number of High Street Pilots to test proof
As well as analysing the decline of high streets from an economics standpoint (the closure of stores, the move to the internet and out-of-town shopping) she also quotes a paragraph from a 1960s American essay which shows the social aspects of the decline:
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist. Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial, but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at the local level – most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands – is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighbourhood need…”
Jane Jacobs (1961)
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
The important things is to make High Streets places that people want to visit – not necessarily just to shop – they need to become again the social as well as economic hub of the community.
The pilot schemes which Mary mentioned are backed up by grant funding. £1m will be split across 12 towns who want to test innovative ideas. The pilots will take the risk out of the challenge and create benchmarks for those that follow. Here’s the launch video:
The actual application process is designed to be low-cost and something which enthusiastic amateurs can put together themselves.
Before you start you do need the basis of a Town Team. This is a group of interested parties that represent the community – typically the council, the MP, retailers, landlords, community groups, and consumers. A successful bid will show that they have consensus and weight of support. To me this seems to make sense anyway. Someone needs to own the strategy for the Ashbourne High Street.
The application form itself consists of:
Section 1 – Names, addresses, telephone numbers. Straightforward!
Section 2 – Town Team/Partnership. This asks for details of the leadership and the Accountable body. This is important because if successful someone needs to look after the money. There are only two credible candidates for this role – the Ashbourne Town Council or the Ashbourne Town Partnership. There are then two questions about administration – a. how will you make information about the use of the grant publicly available and b. how will you monitor and evaluate the impact of the grant. These are simple technical answers
Section 3. Criterion One: Mix this just asks you to tick the boxes which describe Ashbourne. The pilots will cover a range of different types of towns and this helps to get a good mix. This is straightforward.
Section 4. Criterion Two: Strong Leadership. This asks you to explain how the team have sought to get local support for the bid and how you will build on it in future. The efforts of the Town Council, the Town Partnership to date, the Market campaign etc would all go into this category in no more than 300 words. Realistically more would need to be done to strengthen the response in this section in a very short period of time. The team would need to get the local media involved to speed up the process.
Section 5. Criterion Three: Commitment. This section asks for letters of support from the parties involved as well as details of any matched funding which was involved. It also asks for details on the percentage of businesses and landlords committed to the project. This would involve doorstepping the local businesses and asking for support. The Town Partnership already have strong links which could facilitate this.
Section 6. Criterion Four: Potential for Improvement. This asks for a statement in less than 300 words on the state of the Ashbourne High Street currently and the opportunities to improve the situation. The current state of play was analysed well in the Economic report on Ashbourne some years ago and the statistics could be revisited. The potential for improvement depends on the particular initiative Ashbourne’s bid chose to champion.
Section 7. Criterion Five: Innovation. This asks what your priorities will be and whether there are any parts of the Portas Review you want to test. Again this is just 300 words and recognises that this will refer to future plans not what you are doing currently.
Section 8. Expenditure. This asks how much money you want and what you will spend it on. It asks you to highlight what is particularly innovative and what additional impact it will have.
Section 9. A short YouTube video describing the project. Professional submissions will not be considered – Fantastic! All the tools needed to do this are an iPhone and a £5.99 app.
So that’s it – no more than 2300 words need to be written in total. To highlight just how little that is – this blog to this point is approximately half the required length of the total Ashbourne submission.
There are two things which Ashbourne would need to resolve to make a bid:
1. Who will lead the bid? – who is going to be our Town Team? The bid could only reasonably led by either the Town Council and/or the Ashbourne Town Partnership. Both of these bodies have the necessary legal status, the status and connections in the town. They would both need lots of support from the community but they are both only a short step to becoming the Town Team.
2. What is the innovation? This is about the whole High Street and not about any one part of it. To be convincing and achievable it needs to build on something that is already in place. Ideas that I have would be to extend and develop the scope and reach of the Loyalty Scheme, to develop Ashbourne’s social networking reach, to maximise the commercial impact and to draw existing tourist attractions onto the High Street, and a bold scheme to work WITH Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury local stores and developing a local focus for them (local produce, cross-recommendation etc).
Whether successful or not the bidding process would be a real tonic for the town. I am happy to coordinate the formation but I don’t have the mandate or the knowledge to do any more. There is already a discussion forum in place for interested parties. If anyone would like to be invited in all I need is an email address. this can be securely done by commenting on this blog (I will not publish the email address in the comment).