Freedom of Information requests have revealed that the second wave of 15 Portas Pilot towns have spent only 13% of the £1.5million they were granted by government. One town spent some of the money photographing Mary Portas. And another has seen empty shops rocket from 14.3% to 23.3% since receiving the funding.
7 of the 15 towns awarded Portas Pilot funding had not spent a single penny. Among these is Tower Hamlets, whose Roman Road market has been filmed to feature in Mary Portas’ forthcoming TV programme in which she crowns herself ‘Queen of the High Street’.
One of the most high profile pilots in the second wave of funding is Welwyn Hatfield, the constituency of former high street minister Grant Shapps. Shapps launched the Portas Pilot competition, calling the winners “golden tickets”. However his local council has spent £44,000 of the £100,000 they were awarded – and seen empty shop levels in the town rise from 14.3% in December 2011 to 23.3% in November 2012.
Controversy dogged Welwyn Hatfield’s bid, as it emerged that they were the only applicant to have had a meeting with officials at the Department of Culture and Local Government ahead of the decision. Shapps denied any wrongdoing and said the award of Portas Pilot status to Welwyn Hatfield was “completely proper”.
Despite promises by Shapps that the Pilots would be the “vanguard of a high street revolution” the spending breakdown shows that a large amount of the money awarded by Government has gone on activities that can hardly be described as revolutionary.
In Lambeth, for example, they spent £14,200 to design market stalls and £3,350 on “test trading”. In Loughborough over £13,000 has been spent on studies, £350 for posting on Facebook and £150 on a photographer to take a picture of Mary Portas when she visited. In Rotherham £3,981.50 was spent on getting local businesses “mystery shopped” and £1,100 on media workshops.
“The rate of major chain closures is increasing dramatically and we are seeing high streets turn into ghost towns,” said retail commentator Paul Turner Mitchell. “We want to see councils mounting an urgent fightback but it looks like all they’re doing is twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads. The problem is that local government thinking is so risk averse and bureaucratic nothing gets done – and this just makes the problem worse.”
The only Pilot to have spent all their money was Lewisham. The town has seen pop up shops, a retro market and a community hub spring up as a result.
In 2011 when Portas published her Portas Review into the high street, she said, “unless urgent action is taken, the casualties will only continue to multiply.” In the top 650 town centres in 2012 the total number of retail and leisure units that closed was 25,872 according to the Local Data Company.