Retail guru suggests secretary of state for communities should get sign-off powers

Retail guru Mary Portas has urged the government to limit out-of-town developments by introducing an “exceptional sign-off” by the secretary of state for communities and local government.    

Portas believes the measure is necessary to prevent the decline of the British high street, on which she has produced a government-backed report, available here.

The retail expert and TV presenter says high streets have reached “crisis point” following decades of neglect, and that immediate action is necessary to promote regeneration.

As well as the ministerial sign-off “to give the town centre a fighting chance against out-of-town developments”, Portas recommends that large new developments should have an “affordable shops” quota.

Her report suggests that large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers, and that retailers should outline their support of local high streets in their annual reports.  

Taking a stance against red tape, she calls for changes to the ‘Use Class’ system which defines the uses of properties on the high street.

“One of the biggest unnecessary restrictions on business seems to be the Use Class system, which makes it difficult for buildings to have different uses and to change uses,” she writes.

“For example, it should be straightforward to convert to or from the D2 (leisure) class.”

She adds that local authorities should make “more proactive” use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to reduce the number of empty shops and encourage redevelopment.    

Turning to the National Planning Policy Framework,Portas says the document should contain an explicit presumption in favour of town centre development.

She writes: “The NPPF already includes a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. I believe that the most sustainable form of retail development is retail development in town centres. Out-of-town shopping is less sustainable taking into account the social and environmental impacts it has; so the new NPPF policy needs to explicitly presume in favour of sustainable development in town centres. And this should include offices as well as shops and businesses.”

Portas has received the backing of business lobbyists the Confederation of British Industry, whose deputy director-general Dr Neil Bentley said: “Retail represents about 10% of our economy, and the high street is a vital part of this.

“The Portas Review makes some sensible suggestions about how we can inject life back into town centres, including increased use of business improvement districts and relaxing planning restrictions on the high street, in particular on change of use.

“More importantly, she recognises the growing burden business rates are placing on companies right across the country at a critical time.

“We need to make sure the UK remains attractive to investors, as it’s their decisions that will ultimately lead to regeneration of our town centres. Any changes to the planning and business rate regimes must therefore encourage investment in the broadest sense, and not just rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Carl Baldwin, retail director at Turner & Townsend, praised the review’s conclusions, but warned that a high street turnaround will not be “easy or quick” to achieve.

“Anything which can bring the bustle back to the high street is to be welcomed – and Mary Portas’ recommendations are a good start,” he said.

“Her calls to tilt planning laws in favour of high street shops could tempt retailers to return to the empty units which currently litter many town centres. Some towns have vacancy rates of 30%, and need all the help they can get.”

However, he cast doubt on the notion that independent stores could return to the high street in droves, saying: “It’s overly optimistic to think that small retailers will suddenly start flocking to the vacant shops which blight so many high streets. If anyone is to fill these gaps, it will probably be the bigger players.

“Well-meaning attempts to revitalise high streets are a challenge at the best of times. Reversing decades of retail trends will be neither easy nor quick.

“In the current bleak economic climate, the government must be fastidious in ensuring that any changes in the law will encourage high street investment, and not add to the retailers’ burden.”