Business leaders accused David Cameron last night of neglecting the high street after he sacked Mark Prisk, the minister leading the drive to regenerate the struggling retailers.
Formerly the housing minister, Mr Prisk chaired a group of civil servants and retail leaders called the Future High Street Forum. It was set up just six months ago by the Government in response to Mary Portas’s review into the state of Britain’s high street.
Members of the committee include the biggest retail bodies in the country, including the British Retail Consortium and the British Independent Retailers Association, and senior figures from Tesco, John Lewis, Vodafone and many others.
However, with Mr Prisk gone, the future of the group could be called into question, and members are furious at the decision to remove him.
Speaking anonymously, one member said: “To take Prisk away so quickly is just ridiculous. We all put in a lot of time into this, and to see that continuity destroyed so quickly is really frustrating. I think there are a lot of questions that need answering.”
The forum had already lost one of its chairmen in August, when Alex Gourlay, co-chair and chief executive of health and beauty at Alliance Boots, quit to take up a position at Walgreens in the US.
Another member told The Independent: “We all agreed that we wouldn’t speak individually about the forum in public, so we could put forward a united front, but now it just seems a bit headless. The Government are all talk and no trousers on this issue.
“How can they say they want to solve the problems, but change the people so soon after we’ve started.”
Mr Prisk revealed his sacking on Twitter, saying he had “been asked to step aside from housing for a younger generation”, adding “Disappointing. But it’s been a great eleven years as a frontbencher.”
Mr Prisk was supposed to lead members of the committee on a trip to Bedford next Monday, on its first fact-finding mission. That trip now hangs in the balance.
Since the Portas review, 27 towns and cities have been turned into Portas Pilots, with 333 Town Team Partners to test different approaches to revitalising the high street.
Ms Portas (inset) has sharply criticised the Government since publishing her review and said she felt “utterly deflated” by its unwillingness to act on her proposals. She accused the Government of not listening when it decided to grant planning permission for a new Tesco in Margate. “I genuinely believe we can have a new type of high street,” she said at the time, “but we need to dig deeper and I’m not seeing that happening and it’s getting very frustrating. The Government’s response to my proposals has been tepid. I feel exhausted by it.”
However, some members welcomed the decision and suggested Mr Prisk was not up to the job of chairing the group. One said: “The question is who will replace him? There had been suggestions the Government might create a high-street minister, but based on this decision that seems unlikely.”
It is not known who will replace Mr Prisk in Government and who will take his place on the committee.
According to minutes from the last meeting in June the biggest topic of conversation was business rates, which several retailers have called on the Government to reform.
The next formal meeting was scheduled for next Tuesday, but it is not known whether this will go ahead.
The Portas report: how it all fell apart
In February 2012 Mary Portas, best known for her TV makeover shows where she encouraged retailers to reinvigorate their stores, presented her report on the high street’s future.
Her ideas included improving parking, reviewing business rates and working with local communities.
The Government initially welcomed the report, but gradually one recommendation after another was rejected or quietly forgotten.
The Future High Street Forum was set up by business leaders and the Government to discuss the Portas report and offer new suggestions. Now it looks as if that committee could be in doubt too.