Government blamed for inefficient use of money with 95 business units having closed in ailing targets
Mary Portas’s scheme to revitalise ailing high streets has failed to stop the rot – with 10 out of the 12 towns selected to share £1.2m of taxpayers’ cash seeing an increase in empty shopping outlets.
The towns – Bedford, Croydon, Dartford, Liskeard, Market Rasen, Nelson, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees and Wolverhampton – together saw more than 95 units close.
The High Street Innovation Fund was launched last year after a report by TV retail guru Portas, known as “Mary Queen of Shops”. But of the targets chosen, only Margate and Bedminster now have more shops and other high street businesses such as banks, cafes or pubs.
Market Rasen in Lincolnshire was the worst performer in terms of shops, with a 3.2 percentage point rise in empty stores between March 2012 and the same month this year, according to information collated by research firm The Local Data Company for the BBC Radio 4 programme You & Yours.
However, the local mayor Stephen Bunney said the town’s Portas Pilot team, called the Market Rasen Business Initiative Group – or MR BIG – had improved the prospects for the town by backing new businesses including a greengrocer’s and setting up a local market, which had attracted thousands of new shoppers.
“Although there have been ups and downs, as a town council we are very supportive of MR BIG,” he said. The team said in March that it had spent a third of the £100,000 it had been allocated under the government scheme and had already committed the rest of the cash for projects to be implemented later this year.
Several pilot towns have come under fire for being slow to spend the government money and for blowing cash on questionable initiatives, such as the £1,600 Peppa Pig costume hired by Dartford Council to appeal to families. In February, the first wave of Portas Pilot towns were revealed to have spent only 12% of the money handed to them.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour’s high streets minister, said: “The fact is the Portas Pilots have struggled to deliver the ‘high street renaissance’ that the government promised because they have not been given enough practical support from Eric Pickles and his ministers to use the money awarded to them efficiently and effectively in support of their local economy.”
Portas has been criticised for failing to visit four of the towns where she was expected to offer “help and expertise”. Her office said each town had been contacted to arrange a visit.
The Guardian also revealed that film-makers working with Portas on her reality TV show, Mary: Queen of the High Street, which featured a handful of pilot towns, lobbied government officials to direct taxpayer funds to particular locations because they would be popular with television audiences.
Portas said in a statement: “As I’ve said many times before, there is no simple solution to the crisis on our high streets, there are no quick fixes but 400 towns up and down the country are working on different plans to try and re-invigorate their high street.”
In February, the government set up a national network of retail and property business leaders to help support its high street schemes. They includea second wave of 15 Portas pilot towns, who were each awarded £100,000, and 330 “town teams” who were given a smaller amount of cash.