Who on earth actually thinks Mary Portas is the solution to the crisis on our high streets?

Irreversible changes in consumer behaviour, disruptive technologies, and recession are together destroying our High Streets. I know, send for the Queen of Shops!

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The Independent Online

I know it’s not the done thing to laugh at news of vast suffering, human and otherwise, but I’m starting to get the very distinct impression that you and I are living in a giant episode of Chris Morris’s The Day Today.

I mean, did the Prime Minister of this united kingdom really spend a chunk of this week saying, first, that offenders in this horse meat saga will feel the full force of the law? Shortly before promising that the investigation will be “meaningful” and that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) must get to the bottom of it? He did, I’m sure; and the satire that Morris wrote so presciently in the 1990s couldn’t have done it any better.

Similarly, this newspaper reported yesterday on information gleaned from Freedom of Information Requests into the so-called “Portas Pilots”. These schemes, named for Mary Portas, retail “expert” and star of Queen of Shops, are a failure.

In eleven schemes examined, a paltry 12 per cent of the £1.2m of taxpayers’ money awarded in May has been spent. Occasionally it has been spent in a way antithetical to common sense and repugnant to common decency, such as the £1,610 expenditure (of your money) for a person in a Peppa Pig costume. The whole programme seems burdened by a terribly cumbersome bureaucracy. Its proponents have either failed to spend the money, or spend it judiciously; and in any case, this is an utterly pathetic attempt to address our High Street’s malaise.

Readers of this column will know I’m not sure there is a solution to the deracination of our High Streets. The simple truth is, when companies are competing in an international market, they will go to where their labour costs are cheapest, which is either machinery or the manpower of the East.

But there are things that we can do at a local level. An editorial in tomorrow’s Independent, for instance, recommends better transport for commuters, rent holidays for entrepreneurs, and lower car park charges. I had dinner a few weeks ago with a senior adviser in No 10 who had fascinating, creative ideas about changing what the high street is for, so that stores sell experiences rather than hard products. I think he’s on to something.

Whether the same can be said for Mary Portas I just don’t know. Doubtless this woman has exceptional talent. But what on earth is our country coming to, when the solution for job losses across every high street in the land is to get her off Queen of Shops tag-teaming with Peppa Pig? Isn’t that ripe for satire? If it wasn’t so ludicrous and sad, I could almost laugh.