COMMENT: Mary Portas - Queen of the flops
THE knives are out for Mary Portas. The Queen of Shops is being rebranded as the Queen of Flops. Ms Portas, you will recall, was charged with giving 12 towns a share of £1.2 million to revive their failing high streets. One town selected to share in the journey to a brave new world is Liskeard. It hasn't worked out that way.
Nationally, 700 shops closed down in 2012. Six hundred opened. In Liskeard, the local community has been split over how best to spend its share. It hasn't worked. Portas has emerged with her ego battered and bruised, but her bank balance looking healthier than Liskeard's shopping areas.
The experience also seems to have affected her memory. Recently she appeared before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. She was asked about the money she had received for making television programmes; a sum of £500,000 was mentioned. She denied a well-tailored trousering of the dosh but then had to backtrack.
Her PR companies have enjoyed a boost from her new fame, so at least somebody has come out of this government vanity project better off: but to be fair to her, if we must, then perhaps it was always doomed to failure. Once people have lost the habit of going into town centres and walking from shop to shop, it's hard to get it back. With so many towns in Cornwall already surrounded by a stifling ring of megastores, maybe the dice were loaded from the start. Throw in internet shopping and the idea of using the butcher, baker, hardware shop, florist and greengrocer is in some cases best seen in sepia.
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Instead of trying to revive the past, perhaps it's time to revisit the whole notion of what towns are for.
It's agreed we need more affordable housing. It's agreed the face of the high street has changed for ever. It's agreed we don't like the idea of valuable agricultural land handed over to Tudorbethan executive housing.
Many years ago the centres of our towns and villages mixed the butcher's shop with the cottages of local workers: houses and shops in the same street. As shops close and it's clear there's no chance of a new occupier, turn the buildings into affordable housing. Cash-strapped local authorities can't pay for it and housing developers will kick, scream and splutter into their off-shore bank accounts, so the Government should demonstrate that its localism policies are more than empty soundbites and provide the homes – cheaper then paying m'learned friends for drawn-out planning arguments and appeals. By accepting that cheap parking, more bus services and a lick of paint are fine, but stand against a tide of change not only in shopping habits but also in society's needs and wants, we can have a fresh debate on what we expect and want our towns to look like in 20 or 30 years' time.
So maybe we take the positive step of facing up to the evolutionary nature of towns and what we want them to be: places where people live beside sustainable shops that complement rather than try to fight the ogres of the out-of-town megastores. Portas was trying to revive dying concepts. Maybe we should think again.