Comment: Portas Pilots and the Queen of the High Street

 “They’re bound to show all the bad bits and make them look really bad, and even if nothing gets better, they’ll have to make it look as if it has.”

Colin Mitchell, florist, Margate 

Where does a government-funded national programme end and a three-part TV programme begin? The lines between ministers, policy, celebrity and programme-making have become dangerously blurred, The Guardian has revealed today. Concerns were raised some time ago about the lack of distinction between entertainment show ‘Mary: Queen of the High Street’ and the government’s Portas Pilots scheme. It’s now obvious that those fears were well founded.

As Mary Portas’s company Yellowdoor and TV production house Optomen lobbied government and drew up their own winning lists for a government scheme, a senior Civil Servant said

we need to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest between pilot selection and the TV show – which are separate projects.

The idea that civil servants were keen to avoid a ‘perception of a conflict of interest’ suggests that a real conflict of interests was perhaps seen as unavoidable. Channel 4, for example, clearly thought they were filming the winning Portas Pilot towns:

Margate is one of three Portas Pilot towns we’re hoping to film with for the purposes of this programme

And Optomen’s own publicity makes much of the link, suggesting the TV programme is part of the government scheme by saying

The final suggestion in Mary’s report was to pilot her ideas and now the government have decided to give it a go.

It’s clear that Mary too, in interviews ahead of the first broadcast of Mary; Queen of the High Street, is unclear of the lines between her TV programme and the government’s Portas Pilot scheme:

the cameras will be tracking Portas as she attempts to revive ailing high streets as part of her “Portas Pilot” scheme. Portas was commissioned by the Government to recommend improvements to high streets, with towns making their case in the hope of securing a Government grant and support from Portas’s team. The three-part series will focus on two of the winning towns

“I said we can’t have me going across the country and doing another TV programme, this has to be real”

Portas’s support for the pilots was never a secret, with the original government announcement saying winning bids would receive

free support from retail industry leaders including Mary Portas’s own team and access to a range of sector experts.

However, Portas soon admitted that only the towns being filmed would receive her support

“We either let the cameras in with me, or I go back on the train and some other town gets it.”

It’s clear that the confusion runs deep, and it will be interesting to see whether the TV programme fairly reflects the fact that Mary’s work and what’s broadcast is nothing to do with either the government’s Portas Pilots programme or the hard-working local Town Teams.


nearly all of the successful Portas Pilot towns have run into problems

according to Joe Barratt, quoted in The Guardian, whose video helped Stockport win their bid. And in Margate Mary’s flagship TV project has closed

the project, called ­Poportunity, will temporarily shut next week, with an organiser admitting it had gone “­downhill like a toboggan”

The promise from government was brave, and suggested a bold, Big Society approach to town centre regeneration. Town Teams, made up of local people, would be given the funds and the power to make decisions. This wouldn’t be the same old people sitting round tables, Mary Portas promised.

The Portas Pilots were supposed to be the vanguard of a high street revolution, and others can look to their example to kick start a renaissance of our town centres.

It’s clear that, between the word and the action the spirit and soul of the Portas Pilots has got lost. In some places, the Town Teams are having great results; but this seems to be despite the funding and support, rather than because of it.  The Town Teams doing well show all the attributes I identified in the Pop Up People report and that suggest that they would have strived and succeeded, government competition or not. The real Queens of the High Street are making change happen, not filming reality TV shows.

Perhaps the final words should be from the current chair of Margate’s Town Team:

“She [Portas] hasn’t done it 100% right, I agree, but she has tried to promote Margate and has brought a lot of publicity.”

We thought we were getting change. Was it all just about publicity?

Dan Thompson is the founder of the Empty Shops Network and author of Pop Up People and Pop Up Business For Dummies. He supported a number of towns preparing their bids and has worked with two towns who won the Portas Pilots competition.

2 responses to “Comment: Portas Pilots and the Queen of the High Street

  1. Dan – Even publicity is of benefit. As chair of one of the hard working volunteer-led town teams ( – established in 2006) that secured £10k funding we were pleased to get this resource boost to enable the relaunch of Brentford Market tomorrow (see AMT’s Chris Wade highlights in his blog the real failures thus far in the Portas Pilots programme lie at a national/local authority level. Its vital that they get to grips with the systemic problems town centres face that Mary highlighted in her report.

  2. Oh, there’s no doubt that publicity is useful – but if you look at the tens of millions spent in 09-10, and on Portas Pilots, and on the other Portas towns, and on the High Street Innovation Fund, and on the Future High Street X Fund…isn’t it a bit much just for publicity? In any case, this article is about the fact that, as government have made clear, any government funds are completely separate from any TV programme and the publicity around that.

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