Simon English: A Government giddy on celebrity deserves Mary's wishful shopping list
Wednesday 14 December 2011
Outlook Sir Humphrey wanders into the study at Number 10. "I have Mary Portas on the phone for you Prime Minister." The PM is wading through "her vision for the future of our high streets" and is suddenly feeling very depressed. "Tell her I'm out to lunch," he sighs. "On second thoughts, tell her she is."
Cameron has only himself to blame. His Government's obsession with getting celebrities to investigate matters in the name of appearing to be "Doing Something" is getting absurd. Some of the celebrity reports even seem to be in conflict.
They got Carol Vorderman to look into maths. She concluded that it would be helpful if we all knew more of it, though of course that might make us better at working out what is a bargain and what is not, which could be bad for shops.
In June 2010, Cameron appointed Martha Lane Fox as his "digital champion", to "encourage as many people as possible to go online", a remit that also rather clashes with the bid to save the high street.
They had Sir Philip Green investigate government efficiency – he says there isn't any, but would quite like people to shop at BhS.
And that property lass off Location, Location, Location, well, she's probably up to something as well. But if people spend all their money doing up houses, the high street really is finished.
The Portas report took seven months and is 50 pages long (I read it so you don't have to). Her proposals are these: shops should be better; people should be nicer to each other; we should have more car boot sales; and more bingo nights. (Eh?)
Veering into sociology, the "Queen of Shops" offers: "We no longer value human interaction, socialising or being part of something bigger than ourselves." That we might regain these things through shopping is a depressing thought. The bingo nights could help though.
Perhaps the reason that people are spending less on the high street is not because shops are bad but because they don't have any money. On this issue Ms Portas is silent.
Even if she is a retail genius, the effect of her brilliant schemes can only be to shift money away from one place and towards another rather than to create wealth. In Portas's mind, armies of volunteer town rangers will man high streets, scaring off yobs and beautifying "spaces".
The chances of this happening are barely north of zero. Oh, and there's some stuff about town planning, which might make a small difference, but is bound to have unintended negative consequences elsewhere, because there always are.
At the back, there's some slightly hectoring "advice to Britain's shopkeepers". They must "stand for something", they should "connect with our values", they should give good service as a "basic right" of mankind.
Then you get to this bit: "Mary Portas is a trademark." Which rather gives the game away that the person most likely to benefit from this report is Mary Portas. It is promotional activity for a brand.
The Government will respond to the recommendations in the spring, says the press release. Of course it will.
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