Every age has its prophets. Ancient society had its augurers, soothsayers, seers. The 21st century has its shopping gurus. Like Mary Portas, her mythical predecessor Cassandra had flaming red hair; unlike her she was tragically believed by no one. The readers of Ms Portas’s weekly retail reviews, the viewers of her television programmes, the followers of her tweets have gratefully hung on her every word. She is a prophet celebrated in her own era.
At least that was how it seemed until she obligingly compiled for David Cameron – “in my own time” and “free of charge” as she repeatedly assured the Communities and Local Government Select Committee yesterday – her 2011 Independent Review into the future of the high street, and discovered controversy for the first time. Sometimes, she said, she wished she’d never put her name on it “because I’ve taken a huge bashing for work I did for nothing which is quite simply unfair,” and because the report – a “catalyst for change” – is “something that’s had enormous traction”.
To be fair, Ms Portas became less martyred as the session wore on. And the “huge bashing” had climaxed in the previous 24 hours when her rival guru, former Iceland boss Bill Grimsey, had called her plans to revive the country’s town centres “nostalgic” and “little more than a PR stunt”.
Yesterday, she gave as good as she got: “I must have done something to Bill Grimsey in a former life. I think it’s because I didn’t actually speak to him regarding my review. He’s one of the people I left off. I’ve seen Mr Grimsey’s headlines that it’s dead, it’s over. That does not sound like someone who really cares about the high street to me.”
She said she had wanted to give “hope” by showing there was a “way forward” for high streets “and there were already towns where this has happened and people have a thriving high street.” Would she work with Mr Grimsey, whose own well-leaked blueprint will this week suggest that a 0.25 per cent tax levy by companies with a turnover of more than £10m would create a £500m development fund to sponsor town centres and start-ups, and will call for a minister for high streets?
Well, she would work “with anyone” with ideas for reviving town centres, but “when you get knocked by him consistently you just think, what’s the problem? Do we really want to change or do we want headlines?”
Ms Portas insisted: “I am not the saviour of the high street, I cannot do this on my own. I am the champion of it… I do this because I believe in high streets and I believe they are an important social infrastructure.” And she would have liked some more support from government in “navigating” the criticism. “I suppose I wasn’t used to politics.”
While not actually disavowing the famous “Portas Pilots” – some of which had failed to spend most of their funding – she pointed out: “I don’t work for Portas Pilots… it’s not my scheme, they are a government initiative.” So what about Dartford council, which had spent £1,600 on hiring someone in a Peppa Pig costume featured prominently, as Ms Portas acknowledged yesterday, in this newspaper?
Well she was not responsible for the way councils spent their money but she had spoken to Dartford about that, and they had said that not only had Peppa brought families into the town centre, but the pilot had helped to generate £400,000 from businesses who saw “the interest in the regeneration of the high street”. Peppa rehabilitated! That was a result.
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