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An Overview Of The Mary Portas Review - Reviewing The Review

Samuel Thompson - Thursday, February 09, 2012

Mary Portas Portrait —( ‘Magnify’, with thanks to catd_mitchell )— On the whole, I'm in agreement with most of the findings and recommendations of the report. The very fact that it was published, involved serious research and turned the spotlight on the plight of the high street is brilliant. That said, I've a couple of bones to pick and thoughts to add.

A Pleasant Surprise

In all honesty I wasn't expecting much from the Review, but that's more a comment on my cynical nature than a criticism of the people involved. I'd wrongly assumed that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt or a government distraction, and it was a real pleasure to have my preconceptions shattered. I genuinely grinned over the first few pages as it became clear that a lot of effort and resources had been devoted to its creation.

The Real Value of the Report

Amongst all of the lightning-fast official responses, furious media positioning and inevitable criticisms that followed its publication little has been said of what is, for me, the real long- term value of the Review: that it's attracted a huge amount of attention to a very important matter.

Many of the organisations who worked with Ms. Portas have spent years tirelessly working to improve the lot of the high street and local businesses, and it's fantastic that – thanks to the report – their efforts and the causes they are fighting for have become [more] mainstream. This applies just as much for us here at TAG!, and the amount of space devoted to the need for central strategies (something that we focus on and provide for local communities) gave us a lovely sense of affirmation.

Looking at the example of other important-to-everyone-but-nobody-paid-attention causes, such as climate change or energy use, it's clear that the most important first step is making sure that everyone is aware that these issues even concern them. I hope I'm right in thinking that the Review's existence, as well as its connection to such a well-known celebrity figure, will do wonders for bringing the high street into the limelight.

A Few Criticisms

While I've already made clear my agreement with much of the report, there were a few points that struck me as a bit off.

Elephant in the room

The main criticism I have of the review is that it fails to differentiate between local and national businesses. Many of the points given which argue the value of the high street clump these two very different categories of business together, simply because they aren't situated out of town.

All of the advantages of high street vs. out-of-town are doubly true for local vs. non-local. The economic value of money spent locally requires due consideration of what local means. The local return on a pound spent at, e.g., a national retailer or a supermarket – whether in or out of town – will never even begin to approach the value for the community of that same pound spent at a locally owned store.

The issue is the degree of local-ness (definitely a word). The value to the local area of a big brand which sources locally is greater than one that doesn't, but either way most of the profits will be going back to non-local headquarters, or to the non-local administrative team, or the non-local marketing and design team, or to the bank-accounts of the non-local shareholders (and so forth).

Compare that to the locally-owned business and the level of investment it brings to the area and it quickly becomes clear that geographically local (any business on the high street) and economically local (locally-owned-and-run businesses) are in very different leagues in terms of the benefits they bring.

Big Brand Chaperones

One of the more off-the-wall recommendations put forth by Mary Portas was that large retailers should mentor local businesses. I think it's a lovely idea, but so is an endless supply of custard; neither, alas, seems realistic. Joking aside, there is real value to the suggestion, but it needs to be honed somewhat.

Most big, established businesses are deemed successful if they manage to keep an ever- increasing flow of money entering the pockets of their shareholders (which isn't a bad thing per se). This usually requires upping profits year on year. The idea of a company with this as its primary goal deliberately fostering and supporting its future competition seems somewhat far-fetched.

If, however, we forget direct competition and consider big retailers supporting non-competing small businesses then it could work brilliantly. The big retailer gets fantastic publicity and demonstrates a real investment in social capital, while the mentoree benefits from big-budget expertise and support.

Final Thought

Taking a step back, two things are clear. Firstly, the question of the high street and what's to be done is ferociously complex; secondly, given the pressure and the complications I'm sure she faced, Ms Portas did a great job. The Review isn't perfect, but it's a damn good stab at a tough target. For that I commend her.

(Although I completely disagree with her about bingo, for those who have read the Review)

Further reading: Some additional recommendations from the New Economics Foundation

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