Mary Portas Defends High Street Revival Plan
Mary Portas has defended her approach to reinvigorating Britain's town centres after her "Portas Pilot" scheme was criticised for "promising the earth but delivering little" by Bill Grimsey, former boss of Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY.
Appearing before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, the self-styled Queen of Shops said: "I must have done something to Mr Grimsey in a former life."
She went on to counter his attack, saying: "Mr Grimsey's headlines of 'It's dead, It's over' don't sound like someone who really cares."
Ms Portas explained to the select committee that the concept behind the original experiment was simply about "people being empowered to do their own thing", that the idea was to challenge local councils to take more risk to revive flagging high streets.
When it was put to her that 10 out of 12 Portas Pilot towns have actually seen more retail units close than open, she explained that is inevitable because "consumer needs have changed".
Her evidence to the select committee came as Mr Grimsey put forward his own plan to help Britain's flagging town centres.
It highlights that since the start of the recession there have been nearly 12,000 insolvencies in the retail industry alone, and in spite of more buoyant economic data of late, research has found that almost half of all retailers in the UK are at risk of failure, with 40,000 shops vacant.
A recent YouGov poll suggested one in three people saw no future for their high street.
Mr Grimsey's report has 31 recommendations, six of which focus on how to reform business rates, perhaps the biggest factor in hamstringing small businesses.
"Precariously poised are 20,000 small retailers out there that are dependent on action from this government to take away the rates burden that they're currently handling," he told Sky's Jeff Randall.
In her evidence to the select committee, Ms Portas also said the freeze on business rates must be stopped.
"Lots of big players have had clever thoughts on this. I don't know what the answer is, but we need to do something," she said.
When asked if council tax bills should rise to subsidise business rates, her response was: "I don't know enough about it."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Ms Portas' appearance before the select committee was her self-confessed naivete about how her proposals had become something of a political football and how ill-defined her role in the pilot scheme has been.
"I don't know what my role is," she told MPs.
"I feel like I have done something wrong. I wish I had had my hand held through this ... when I was getting stick from the press, I could have used more support from the Government."
Her appearance also threw up questions as to the rigorousness of her background research when formulating her report recommendations.
For example, when informed that the money local councils make from car parking fees is ring-fenced to be invested back into the road network, she seemed surprised exclaiming: "Oh, I didn't know that."
Reform of town centre parking charges was a key point in her 2011 review.
Ms Portas told the committee that she does not regret getting involved with the high street revival project but when asked if she could work with Mr Grimsey in the future, she laughed and retorted: "That's a step too far."