Can Portas save the high street?

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The Independent Online

Television retail guru Mary Portas plans to bring the community back to the high street this week in the face of another wave of retailers going into administration.

Portas was hired by the Government in May to bring life back to the UK's dying high streets. According to the Local Data Company, 159 towns in the UK have one in five shops which are empty.

David Cameron personally hired Portas, and her recommendations will be revealed by No 10 on Tuesday. The review calls for a variety of measures, from town centres slashing car parking charges, changes to planning law to favour town centres over out-of-town retail, and bringing offices back in, to councils sharing the burden of business rates with landlords and the introduction of more Business Improvement Districts.

Portas's business partner, marketing expert Peter Cross, told The Independent on Sunday: "The high street is not just about shops. We actually need fewer shops. It is about offering something that shoppers can't get at home.

"Mary wants to create a different vision. She has been brought in to do this because she thinks differently to the previous 26 people that have been asked to do a review like this. She has listened to the social as well as economic arguments. But everyone has got to give a little bit to make this work – the landlords, and the councils, but also the shoppers themselves. Shoppers have found it easier to put the kids in the car and drive to the retail park. But to make this work we all have to give the power back to the high street."

Portas and her team met with retailers, councillors, shoppers and landlords, while more than 2,000 views were posted at

Property Week magazine disclosed on Friday that Portas hopes to set up high-street task forces to encourage owners of distressed high streets to invest. She also plans to create business-to-business mentoring schemes.

One of the biggest gripes of high- street occupiers is business rates, which form up to 70 per cent of the cost of the rent. In some cases landlords have said even offering nominal rents such as £1 will not tempt some retailers, who cannot afford a shop's rates bill. In the next 10 days the Local Government Finance Bill will be published which will give the go ahead for business rates to be retained by local councils from 2013 – giving the councils more power to decide where to spend the money collected.

Ed Cooke, from the BCSC, the retail property trade body, said: "There have been structural changes taking place in the way we shop and the way we use our town centres, but government has not responded quickly enough. Town centres need to compete but business rates are an inflexible cost. There needs to be a fundamental review of business rates."

Portas's review comes as another wave of retailers teeter on the brink. Shoe retailer Barratts was placed in administration last week,while Game, Peacocks and Blacks are all facing restructuring or sale.

The latest raft of casualties will be added to the pile of stores being closed by travel agent Thomas Cook, retailer Mothercare and Sir Philip Green's Arcadia – to name a few.

Struggling music retailer HMV had planned a further 60 shop closures but it is thought it will need to take more drastic measures as less than 30 of the designated 60 leases have been off-loaded. Meanwhile, La Senza and Clinton Cards have this week asked landlords if they can pay rent on a monthly basis.

Most retail experts predict a raft of failures during December and January and the Government will now face pressure to implement Portas's recommendations before it is too late.