Terry Murden: High street renaissance needs more than talk

THE Portas plan to save Britain’s ailing high streets has got official backing. But will the list of 28 recommendations from the self-styled Queen of Shops solve a chronic problem?

Mary Portas made her reputation as a kick-ass, get-things-done, troubleshooter in her various television programmes which showed how the nation’s shop owners were suffering not only from a dearth of shoppers but from bad business practices, poorly-designed stores and sloppy customer service. No wonder they’re losing customers.

But the general decline has gone beyond bad shopkeeping and is the result of shifts in shopping patterns – to out-of-town developments and to the internet.

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The result has been decay and, in many cases, the demise of once-thriving shopping districts. Some big names including La Senza, MFI, Woolworth and Zavvi have disappeared from the high street.

Portas wants high streets to offer free parking, later opening hours and market days, and she has demanded changes to the planning rules to ease the change of use for empty units.

At least there is a mood in government circles that towns and cities can no longer be left to deteriorate and an acceptance that retail is one of the country’s biggest industries, an engine of recovery and a vital provider of jobs.

But the money on offer will hardly transform one town, let alone fund a national makeover. Scotland’s £1 million share of the £10m high street innovation fund wouldn’t pay for the refit of more than a dozen or so average-sized shops, though the money is likely to be spent on more cosmetic changes to improve the shopping environment through the funding of business improvement districts (Bids). Such Bids have been around in Scotland since 2004 and there isn’t much evidence of a transformation in Scottish high streets.

Much of the blame for where we are has to fall on local authorities whose planning and development departments allowed for the spread of out-of-town retail parks and the demolition and neglect of much-loved locations.

It’s no accident that people like the intimacy and bustle of a market town, but this is what we have lost. Nowadays we are encouraged to shop in soulless metal sheds circling enormous car parks and surrounded by the familiar array of dreary fast food outlets.

Meanwhile, those choosing to venture into lifeless town centres must suffer litter, cracked pavements, pot-holed roads, a clutter of ugly signage, and an over-supply of the wrong types of shops: discount stores, takeaways and those selling cheap tat.

Councils plead poverty while spending money on pointless street signs warning us to beware of the bleedin’ obvious, or on measures to persuade us to switch from cars to bikes when cycling should be restricted to minor roads and dedicated cycleways. Try taking home the week’s shopping on the back of a bike.

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Frankly, Mary Portas’s reforms are only a start. David McCorquodale, head of retail at KPMG, quite rightly says it has raised the profile and understanding of the issue but argues that too little financial support is on offer, despite the Westminster government’s support for the plan.

The Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres, now under way, is an opportunity to build on the Portas plan. It must insist that for our town and city centres to thrive we have to reform the way our local authorities go about managing them.

BlackBerry way off the mark as market swings

BLACKBERRY was once the must-have device for all gadget fans and the well-connected because of its security and reliablity.

Research in Motion, the Canadian company. is not looking so secure and reliable as the device it makes. Its slide into the red follows its failure to follow the trend towards touch-screen smartphones.RIM casualties include those of founder Mike Lazaridis and his co-chief executive Jim Balsillie.

The company is undergoing a review and has not ruled out a sale amid expectations that it will concentrate on the business smartphone customer, though some doubt there is such a distinct market any more.

Alarmingly, BlackBerry’s problems echo those suffered by the one-time mobile number one Nokia.