Portas was just another fall guy for the Government’s lack of ideas

It really is pathetic, this belief of senior politicians that we will be fooled by what amounts to little more than high-profile, public relations-led window-dressing


On my way to work, as I travel along Kensington High Street, I can’t help but notice the empty shops. Some have been turned over to discount factory outlets; one forlornly became a pop-up branch of HMV, the troubled music and DVD retailer; others just stand disused, and to all intents and purposes abandoned.

This is on a road in one of the wealthiest districts in London, with a guaranteed high footfall, not just from the residents, but from the major corporations that have their offices along the same strip.

Westfield, the monster of a shopping centre, is not that far away. Even so, if you can’t make shops work here, what hope is there for the rest of the country?

Where I live there are more desolate stores, particularly in the side, or in what property folk like to refer to as “secondary”, streets. Everywhere, the pattern is identical. Shops have shut and remained closed or they’ve become budget retailers, express supermarkets, coffee bars, charity shops and estate agents.

Meanwhile, online shopping continues to power ahead. It’s clear that a great cultural shift is taking place, one that has precious little to do with location (only the most “prime” areas of London that cater for rich tourists are seemingly immune). Into this intractable mix, the Government threw Mary Portas (pictured). Or rather, ministers do what they always do when faced with a problem beyond their control: they turn to an outside adviser, usually someone well-known, to attempt to solve it for them.

So Portas, the retail guru, self-styled Queen of Shops, was made “high street tsar”. It really is pathetic, this belief of senior politicians that we will be fooled by what amounts to little more than high-profile, public relations-led window-dressing. David Cameron had to be seen to be attempting to turn around our struggling town centres. In truth, there is little he can do, and he knows that (there are bits here and there but the shift is tectonic), so he appointed someone to make it look as though he was doing something.

Portas now rues taking on the role. “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t put my name on it as I have taken a huge bashing for work I have done for nothing,” she said.

When it came, just six months later, her report, complete with a list of key recommendations, was worthy but unexciting. Her proposals, either together or individually, were incapable of making much impact on the tide of change sweeping through retailing. Perhaps there was a point to her recruitment, in that she could say things a senior civil servant with a calculating brain would not dare utter: that shopping streets should introduce free controlled parking, while ignoring the traffic chaos this could cause and the impact on councils that have increasingly come to rely upon parking charges for income.

And that large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers, to which the response is a loud “as if”. Any major retailer I’ve ever spoken to cannot see beyond their own figures, without having to take smaller operators under their wing.

Otherwise it was difficult to see what Portas was for. Generally, her study was all too trite and obvious – the sort of document that an intern might produce when given the subject for the first time, a combination of idealism and irrelevance.

Portas made her reputation transforming Harvey Nichols, striking at just the right time as the UK became more fashion and label-conscious and repositioning Harvey Nicks from dowdy Knightsbridge store to luxury designer destination. Pulling off the same trick with Britain’s depressed high streets was beyond her. As it would be, in truth, for anyone.

Worse, however, it transpires that Portas was being less than frank when she said she worked for nothing. Appearing before the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee recently, she was asked whether she had been paid £500,000 for making television programmes tied to her government involvement.

Portas said not. Now she’s had to qualify her answer by writing to the committee to explain that, after all, she does have a £500,000 contract with Channel 4 and that three of the shows she was contracted to make did indeed cover her role as retail tsar.

It’s all very embarrassing. Portas is not the first external adviser drawn from the business world to come a cropper in Whitehall. There must be one of them who has hailed it as a mutually fulfilling experience, but try as I might I cannot think who it is. Certainly, if there is, I’ve never met them. Most moan privately about having their financial affairs pored over, of not being listened to by ministers and civil servants, of having their report filed away and forgotten, and the sense that all along they were there to be used to mask the inadequacies of the politicians.

Hopefully, Portas should become the last of the breed. This government practice of passing the buck must stop.

Gone too soon? You must be joking –  no one wanted Jacko at Craven Cottage

Farewell Wacko. I’d like to say I view the removal of the Michael Jackson statue from Fulham Football Club’s ground at Craven Cottage with sadness. But no. Its departure, presumably on the orders of the club’s new owner, Shahid Khan, is a cause for minor celebration.

Not only was the monument to the dead pop singer hideously kitsch (it was massive, much taller than Jackson and more like a poorly modelled waxwork than a sculpture), it was in the wrong location.

Jackson had no connection with football or with Fulham. Outside the stadium is a tasteful, sombre memorial to the late, great Johnny Haynes, the club’s idol and former England captain. It was Mohamed al Fayed, the club’s previous owner  , who decided – for reasons only he knew – that the fans also wanted, nay needed, a tribute to Jackson.

The Jacko figure was intended for Harrods, Fayed’s retail emporium, but its new Qatari proprietors (Fayed has been divesting much of his business interests recently) did not want it. So Fayed shipped it to the Cottage. There it stood, weird and ridiculous. But also, wrong. Fayed and I used to be on good terms. He liked to call me Baldy and would joke about how many children I had and whether I was getting “plenty, plenty, heh, heh, heh”.

As I’ve told before, we fell out over Jackson because I said I objected to taking my son to watch football at a ground where there was a tribute to a man who plied young boys with “Jesus Juice” before taking them to his bed.

Fayed is now moving the statue to another of his properties. Presumably, he’ll be expecting slightly more appreciation than he got from the Fulham fans, whom he told to “go to hell” for not liking it.

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