The event, held at the newly opened Goldsmiths’ Centre in Clerkenwell, was addressed by three industry experts who gave their perspectives on Portas’s 28-point plan. Tracing the decline of the high street, Mike McGraw of Development Initiatives commended many of the proposed remedial actions, including Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) and business mentoring schemes; Chris Wade, chief executive of Action for Market Towns, viewed the report in the broader context of town centre regeneration, commending the ‘town centre first’ proposals; and, putting a practical slant on the implementation process, Jayant Raniga of Pure Jewels described the achievements of the Green Street Association, while calling particularly for a review of the ‘Use Class’ system relating to betting shops and other operators. All three welcomed the concept of Town Teams to establish high street brand values, but feared the Government’s bidding competition for 12 towns to share a million pound development pot was little more than a distraction from the serious proposals in Mary Portas’s report.
NAG chief executive Michael Hoare related his own ‘wish list’, which contained “a restoration of the link between business rates and local services; a fair and transparent planning regime; and meaningful power in the hands of local government.” Furthermore, “a robust ‘town centre first’ planning policy is to be welcomed, because, as it stands, about 80 per cent of future development is planned for out-of-town developments. Business rates are one of the biggest barriers to business entry and growth on the high street, and therefore the Portas proposals are to be applauded; but the challenge will be for government and councils to find suitable funding models. Similarly, more free parking is a laudable aim, with plugging the gap in council finances the potential stumbling block!”
Summing up contributions from the 50 or so delegates present, NAG chairman Nicholas Major reflected that it would be “shameful to waste the energy building around high street regeneration,” and urged the Government not to take the easy option and dismiss Portas’s more radical suggestions out of hand.