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An audience with Mary Queen of Shops…

October 18, 2011

Mary Portas, one of the nation’s retail success stories, was in Parliament today to discuss the future of the high street with MPs.  Mary has been asked by the Coalition Government to report on the state of British retail and recommend measures to rejuvenate the high street and town centres.

Mary was in a commitee room at the House of Commons today to sound out MPs on some themes and hear about constituency experiences.  She thinks what’s needed is a combination of “vision, entreprenuership and planning.”  I guess this means that towns and cities need to decide what sort of shopping experience they want, businesses need to invest and innovate and the regulatory regime needs to be supportive.

MPs raised many issues and had lots of great ideas.  The growth of charity shops may have saved some high streets but what number is too many?  Do they have an unfair advantage over businesses that employ people?  A charity clothes shop gets rate relief and is operated mainly by volunteers.  Should a local council have a cap on the number of charity shops, cafes or estate agents in a particular area?

I of course have a huge range of shops in my Bristol West constituency.  As well as Broadmead and Cabot Circus there’s also the distinct independent shops and boutiques in Clifton Village, Park Street, Whiteladies Road, Cotham Hill, Gloucester Road, Stokes Croft, Stapleton Road and Church Road.  Mary was very familiar with Gloucester Road, England’s longest high street of shops.

I raised the issue of the mix of shops on high streets.  If something is missing, should the council be able to offer rate relief to attract a particular retailer?  For instance, Gloucester Road and Whiteladies Road have both lost their bookshops.  Mary liked this idea but also said shops could be more mixed in their offer.  Some Waterstone’s shops have a cafe (eg Bath) so why shouldn’t cafes sell books…she suggested a “Starbooks” brand.  I’m not sure whether that would be popular on Gloucester Rd! 

The  biggest threat to books, music and DVD retailing has been Amazon and other internet sellers.  When I visit the Royal Mail delivery offices each Christmas I am struck by the vast number of Amazon parcels.  Maybe Amazon will one day have to set up a high street presence to make it easier for people to collect their orders…

Mary’s report will come out this side of Christmas and I hope it will be brimming with suggestions for action.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. David Gould permalink
    October 18, 2011 11:40 pm

    Mary Portas is amazing… for shops.

    The best thing the Govt could do is send DVDs of her series to retailers. But the idea of councils stepping in and doing makeovers for retailers is hilarious.

    A cap on charity shops? God no. If you can’t compete with a charity shop even at preferential rates, you deserve to go bust.

    A cap on supermarkets would be better. Oh look

    Amazon doesn’t want or need expensive shops. Its business model is much better. Books are a relatively expensive lightweight commodity, all of which are better sold (& bought) over the internet,
    Coffee + 2nd hand books is a smart suggestion if only to differentiate you from the zillion other coffee shops.

    Now if the council wants to step in to encourage coffee shops to open til at least 11pm, that would be great.

    I suspect most of what she said is that British retailing sucks, isn’t designed for consumer convenience, nor to tempt them.

  2. October 19, 2011 12:28 am

    After our talk a couple of weeks ago, I would have thought that at least you would have raised with Mary Portas the question of re-designing the A1 retail planning guidance notes. High Street shops may need some protection from Amazon and internet sales in general, but for sure they need protection from Tesco planning applications.

    It feels like this issue is going to be ducked by you, the government, and others. Surely it was one of the biggest issues in your postbag last year? Your constituency pretty strongly voted against more Tescos, but it looks like nothing is going to stop the juggernaut. So much for power to the people.

    • October 20, 2011 10:41 pm

      the article clearly says that one of her three key points is a supportive regulatory regime! I’m giving you a heads up on a report that is not yet written…so hold your fire!!

  3. robertjessetelford permalink
    October 19, 2011 10:58 am

    There was a cafe/bookshop called Starbooks in Manchester when I lived there. Closed down now though. Probably because Starbucks moved in.

    Which sort of illustrates the nub of the debate. The first thing you should be protecting is local people’s livelihoods and businesses that provide services for the community, not the multinationals who are just after more profit for their shareholders.

  4. rosemary permalink
    October 19, 2011 10:56 pm

    I should have thought someone might have mentioned drink and the effect it has had on Bristol’s best loved shopping street: Park Street. Not only has it lost its bookshops – I forget how many there were, but a great number down both sides – but it has suffered appalling degradation, so that no nice business would want to set up there now. Thank goodness for the charity shops appearing – they raise the tone no end. I have never understood why the council decided to sacrifice its most famous and iconic high street to “the night time economy”. No-one even wants to dine there now it is so disgusting to walk up.

    • October 20, 2011 10:48 pm

      I agree that the bars are a problem but don’t think the proliferation of bars in the Centre and Park Street has caused the demise of book shops or other stores – they didn’t open in the evenings. But that leads me to another point -maybe if more “independent” shops opened in the evening and on Sundays they would get lots of new custom from people who are in work during their normal 9am-5pm weekday opening hours…

      • rosemary permalink
        October 21, 2011 11:59 am

        Sorry, Stephen, I wasn’t clear: I agree, the many diverse bookshops went out of business because of the internet, not drink.

        My point was that in a mixed residential and daytime trading quarter which was formerly dominated by learning and the arts, should an industry have been allowed to invade, which hasn’t just degraded and changed its character, but continues to destroy the health and wellbeing of those same young people who used to frequent the bookshops? The drink may well be purveyed to them mostly in the evenings through to the early mornings, but the unpleasant side effects are present throughout the working day, as anyone who works, walks, or cycles around there will tell you; and to such an extent, that new businesses must be deterred from setting up.

        Independent shops struggle to staff themselves, so although it might seem a good idea to have them open all hours in the manner of the traditional Indian cornershop, it may not be easy to arrange during a recession. Besides, 24 hour city has not proved a civilizing phenomenon. Rather the reverse. Balance is what is needed, and that has gone.


  1. Speaking up for Bristol’s High Streets in Parliament « Stephen Williams' Blog

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