Grant Shapps: 12 “Portas Pilot” Towns to win “golden ticket” and share £1million for regeneration #indieretail


From the press release “The Government today (4th Februray 2012) launched a competition to find 12 areas to share £1 million under a drive to regenerate town centres. The move followed last year’s review of high streets by retail “guru” Mary Portas aimed at halting the decline of high streets and closure of local shops.

The 12 towns in England will be selected to run so-called Portas Pilots and “breathe new life” into local shopping centres, creating town teams, made up of the key players in their local community – such as the council, landlords, shopkeepers and the local MP.

Local government minister Grant Shapps said: “Our high streets have faced stiff competition from internet shopping, and out-of-town shopping centres, leaving them unused, unloved and under-valued. The internet is not going to go away, and so for our high streets to survive they need to offer something new and exciting. So today I’m offering a “golden ticket” to 12 town centres across the country to become Portas Pilots – areas with the vision and enthusiasm to breathe new life into what should be the beating heart of their communities, and they will get Mary’s and my support as they try out the ideas in her recent review.”

Mary Portas said: “I am thrilled that now there is an opportunity to turn my recommendations into reality by giving communities across the country the opportunity to come forward with their vision for breathing new life into their locality. I want the first 12 town teams to challenge the old ways of working, experiment, take risks and reaffirm their place at the heart of a community. A place we all want to be and can be proud of.” End Press release.

This morning I was invited onto LBC radio to comment on this, and I got into rather a passionate debate when asked…

What would Clare Rayner, The Retail Champion do to turn around our town centres?

I was additionally asked, is this a gimmick? My response was “No, apart from sounding like Willy Wonka (references to Golden Tickets) this isn’t a gimmick but a much needed trial of implementation of the recommendations from the Portas review. HOWEVER… There is NOT a one-size fits all approach to our towns, it is critical that we recognise the current issues are in part due to the “clone towns” (each looking the same as the next) and in fact what we need are towns uniquely in tune with the local community that they serve! This means asking the community what they want from their town centre, what they need and also looking ahead at the generation who have migrated away, the “online, social” generation – how could their towns appeal to them?

My suggestions referenced the need to “sort out the basics, such as accessible parking” but then I moved on to talk about the innovation called for to “win the golden ticket” and the reference to the threat of the internet… To me the “basics” are clean, accessible, safe and welcoming town centres – given the rates everyone pays surely that’s a “hygiene factor” – the bare minimum we can expect – that’s not innovation, that’s frankly essential! I reflected on the fact that the internet HAS profoundly changed consumer behaviours and the way in which we shop, the highest spending groups (teens, young adults, families) are ALL (almost all) online and social! Retailers need to embrace this and bring the internet experience to life in store to engage with the generation who gets a panic attack if they go 2 minutes up the road to the corner shop and discover they left their phone at home…. This was the essence of a blog I wrote just after the Portas review, where I highlighted the fact that she’d overlooked the multi-channel opportunity (see that blog via The multichannel consumer experience – the missing element of Portas review?)

But the response to my suggestions of innovation and example of using FourSquare to encourage check-ins and reward loyalty was dismissed as not really attacking the main problems of rates, parking, security, cleanliness and rentals…

Why addressing the “hygiene factors” won’t be enough to bring shoppers back to town centres. This ONLY levels the playing field with out of town and shopping centres!

The thing is we have to believe that the state of the town centres MUST be addressed! It is simply unacceptable that towns are inaccessible, unsafe and dirty. It is a disgrace that rents and rates are so high in environments that no one would want to spend time in! But these aren’t going to turn the high street around – if you get the basics sorted all that happens is you level the playing field between town centre and out of town or shopping centre! STILL consumers when faced with the choice WON’T break the habits they have formed to chose out of town / shopping centre over town centre. High streets need to REALLY step up to leap-frog the competition. They need to become the environment of choice for shoppers. They need to be mindful of the needs and wants of the communities they serve and be relevant, engaging, dynamic and offer something that exceeds the convenience and “controlled” environment of the out of town or shopping centre environment AND they have to work with, not against the desire of consumers to use the internet to shop and socialise!

So I was quite cross that yet again the interviewer wanted to focus on things that MUST be addressed but which WON’T be enough to win over consumers.

No one is thinking of the shopper in all of this! The ones we really need to win over are the customers!

I realised that my “anger” with this interview, and my passion to get my point across, stems from the very fact everyone seems to have a bee in their bonnets about what matters to the businesses, what matters to the councils, but no one is really thinking about the customers! The customers have, in the main, GONE AWAY. It is imperative we attract them back to town centres; but only town centres ready to welcome them – clean, safe and accessible!

The retail offer must be relevant, engaging and tailored to the local community. Retailers need to understand that a Tesco in the town centre HELPS footfall, as does an M&S, a New Look, a Boots, a Clarks and a handful of other KEY multiples (depending on the communituy!) There is an important synergy between “core multiples” and independents that each centre needs to draw the footfall – this balance between the diversity and creativity the independents can bring and the stability and consistency of the multiples is beneficial for ALL those residing in a high street. Add to that the need for coffee shops, bars, restaurants, a library, a Post Office… depending on the area many other services are needed in a town that go beyond retailing!

Consumers will never do all their shopping online, or indeed in store, they will use a mix – town centres can support that e.g. providing in store collection points for online orders which then may result in the occasional impulse purchase too.

Consumers have become accustomed to some excitement around their shopping experience – even my 85 year old Grandmother can order online BUT she loves to get out to the town, to meet friends in a cafe and to browse the shops, to buy herself a treat that catches her eye – it’s all about experience. We’ll NEVER get to that experience if the hygiene factors aren’t addressed first and THEN the innovation added.

So, these 12 “Portas-Pilot” towns better speak to the local communities before they start spending their share of the money!

What IS happening that should really help consumers to re-engage with their local high streets?

July is going to be an amazing month for retailers and consumers alike! July is Independent Retailer Month, a whole month dedicated to encouraging consumers to shop local and rediscover the delights on their door-step. Retailers have an “excuse” to work together to run events and activities in their local areas throughout July that will remind consumers how much fun it can be to “go out to the shops”. A whole month is almost enough time to form a habit (apparently it takes 6 weeks) therefore if the momentum continues throughout July it may well continue indefinitely, so long as the retailers keep engaging the consumers.

There is also Skillsmart Retail’s “Independents’ Day” on 4th July – consumers are encouraged to buy at least 1 item from a local independent retailer on 4th July.  The biggest announcement for me was NABMA (National association of British Market authorities) who will have a “National Market Day” in July. It will take place in the earlier part of July, and be an Independent Retailer Month event. Markets have been identified as one of the most significant factors that draw consumers into town centres, so this is fantastic news.

So, lots to look forward to, but lets not all get stuck moaning about hygiene factors – the change in consumer behaviour is, for retailers who are not ready to innovate, an “extinction level event”! Those who innovate, evolve, and bring their customer engagement model in line with what customers want will become the dominant species. There are exciting times ahead for those willing to innovate; lets just hope the people with the power to sort out the hygiene factors get on with it, pronto!


About Clare Bailey

Clare Bailey, The Retail Champion (formerly Clare Rayner), is one of the most well-known and respected retail experts in the UK. With unrivalled knowledge in retail, high streets and consumer matters, she offers unbiased, independent content – whether engaged as a professional speaker, for broadcast media, or for a written feature. Clare is a business woman, entrepreneur and founder of several small businesses. Having been born into a family of successful business owners, it was inevitable that she’d eventually jump off the corporate treadmill and step out on her own! Today her brand portfolio includes The Retail Champion, The Retail Conference, the Future High Street Summit and the Support for Independent Retail campaign. In addition, she is co-founder of Mobaro Retail UK and a non-exec director of Beed Virtual Assistant Services. Having started her career as a fast-track store management trainee for McDonalds, she went on to work with leading retailers such as M&S, Dixons and Argos. She moved swiftly into management roles before being headhunted into senior consulting roles with global software giant SAP, and international management consulting brand, Accenture. Her corporate background in senior retail, consulting and technology roles, coupled with her experience of creating and running her own business, has enabled her to be equally capable whether consulting to global brands or micro businesses. This unique blend has not only positioned her as a leading expert in all things retail, but has enabled her to add meaningful commentary and insight to the debate around the future of the high street, and, how technology is driving fundamental change in the way consumers, and businesses, interact. Clare has become an influential voice in her field, which has resulted in her becoming a regular media contributor and sought-after conference speaker. Often seen on Good Morning Britain, BBC Breakfast, Sky News, and Chanel 5 (to name a few), Clare speaks on a myriad of retail, high street and consumer issues – but is particular adept when it comes to explaining the context behind retail trading results, newly released data, and government stats, in a palatable and informative manner. In addition to broadcast and conference speaking, Clare is the proud author of two best-selling business books published by Kogan Page - The Retail Champion: 10 Steps to Retail Success, published July 2012 and How to Sell to Retail: The Secrets of Getting Your Product to Market, published February 2013. She has provided contributions to various academic texts, including Retail Marketing Management (published by Pearson). With an engaging, conversational yet informative style, Clare writes for press and content agencies, providing features, articles, blogs and opinion pieces as well as contributions to white papers and reports. However, when the situation demands a more serious style, Clare can deliver - In 2016 she wrote an extensive report for a major insurance and risk law firm, as a retail expert witness, to support a public liability suit. She found that project particularly enjoyable as it played well to her strengths – assimilating large amounts of data and information, identifying the key points and articulating that in an understandable manner. When not on TV or speaking at conferences, Clare’s “day job” sees her supporting consumer-facing businesses through her consultancy services. When asked to describe what she most loves about retail consulting it is typically the opportunity to “dig deep”, getting “under the bonnet”, in order to leverage the business data to uncover the insights that lead to “lightbulb moments”. She also loves working on business change programmes that centre on improving the processes and systems to increase profitability by supporting more rapid, better informed decision making, improving the customer experience, or simply by become more efficient and streamlined. In this respect she considers herself a “business engineer” with a brain that works like a relational database! Due to her years of experience, her logical, objective approach, her quick, rational thinking, she is known for being able to cut through complexity, seeing right through to the crux of issues, finding creative solutions that others may have overlooked. As if all that wasn’t enough, Clare is a working mum, juggling a home life in rural Lincolnshire with her partner, their 5 kids, 4 cats, and geriatric Labrador! For all enquiries, contact Clare directly on 01727 238890 or email
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16 Responses to Grant Shapps: 12 “Portas Pilot” Towns to win “golden ticket” and share £1million for regeneration #indieretail

  1. Marcus says:

    Thank you for the very informative article, we have a service that I feel will complement the efforts of local businesses. With the primary aim of helping local independent shops we have developed an online loyalty card system that will encourage communities to shop locally and help shops communicate with their customers.

    Shoppers can easily access their loyalty cards, news events and offers, compiled by shop owners, on their smartphones, tablets and computers. has been designed to help independent businesses compete in this very competitive climate.

    • Clare Rayner says:

      Marcus – thanks for you comments and perspective. I am very interested in the “I love local shops” loyalty card… Assuming this is a commercial venture I wonder, would you be interested in having a discussion about partnering with Independent Retailer Month on a sponsored basis? You’d be in good company – Cybertill, Shoppercentric, EPOS Partners, e-mphasis, Gloople and Rubber Cheese are all contributing to the campaign, helping us to keep up the momentum, reach and engage more retailers and to deliver an awesome launch event on 1st July! If you’d like to find out more then please let me know or drop me an email to

  2. I think the argument has now moved on beyond the Portas review points. The review took so long to carry out that it’s been overtaken by events. This was followed by another protracted series of government stalling tactics such as appointing a ‘minister for the high streets’ who now seems to see himself as Willy Wonka (as you so rightly point out).

    I think we’re past the idea that the problems in retail can be split between high streets and out of town centres. That might have been the case 18 months ago when the disparity was apparent. But what we have now is a very low level of consumer activity across all sectors. This has simply exposed the high water marks in retail and the high streets are the first to be caught by the receding tide.

    What’s needed now is a comprehensive set of government policies intended to revitalise shoppers in what has always been touted as a consumer led economic revival. In that context, it’s too important an issue to leave it to TV personalities and cheap trick PR initiatives.

    If something isn’t done urgently to address fixed cost issues such as rates and rent there won’t need to be any concern about hygiene in our town centres. Once all the stores are boarded up and no one goes there I’m sure they’ll be sterile enough.

    • Clare Rayner says:

      Thanks for your comments Ian; whilst the content is disheartening it is heartening to know I’m not alone in believing that there is a consumer centric focus needed to give them back confidence to spend at all and only then to engage them in WHERE to spend.
      There is a need to engage consumers by understanding the way they now prefer to shop – and I was provoked to write some of the blog on the basis of being told that talking about “integrating the online world with the real world” was “management speak” – except it’s not – it’s exciting innovation such as the Intel Adiverse that will capture people’s imaginations and draw them in to the stores – without it, online, at home, no parking, no queues – the attraction is obvious!
      Speaking of in store theatre… I think Angus Thirlwell has positioned himself more closely to Willy Wonka and will undoubtedly have more retail success from his “Chocolate factory” concept as well.
      Only a couple of days ago, in answer to a comment on facebook about my posting Theo Paphitis remarks about Mary Portas, I said that she had her specific skills and that broadly I did agree with Theo that she may not be the idea advisor BUT what she has done is brought retail issues to the attention of the media and created enough noise around the topic to get people (you and I included!) talking about it. Whether or not she has answers is almost secondary to the fact there is now open discussion… like you though this will all just be hot air and further waste of money that the government can ill afford IF there is no radical action.
      I remain hopeful that in fact the organisations who I’ve recently got to know well (thanks to their support of Independent Retailer Month) – ATCM, AMT, NABMA etc – do have the ability to influence the sector, one shop or market stall at a time, and to really encourage each and every retailer to understand that it is, in part, their responsibility to BE what the customer wants… the rent, rates, parking, credit insurance and other issues need attention but fundamentally the retailers too need to be relevant and delivering an appropriate offer and service proposition in order to secure the share of the [increasingly constrained] wallet that they need.

  3. I totally agree that Portas has got the subject into the public domain but this is something that should have happened 3 years ago. We’re now beyond the point where we should be talking about it. Instead we should be seeing government initiatives already implemented and in action.

    It’s far too important a subject now for us, and those with the power to do something about it, to be sidelined by competitions and PR stunts that in themselves are going to have very little impact on the problem. ‘Portas pilots’ for example will be eligible for a maximum of around £83K per town. What difference is that going to make? And to get this money they need to organise themselves, make a video (yet more fluff) and jump through a number of as yet unspecified hoops to get it. By which time I think it will be too late.

    I agree that towns need to organise themselves. I myself am involved in one potential group in Oxford. But that’s something that every town should be doing. The government should be focussing on freeing up the wheels of commerce which right now are being frozen by fixed overhead costs that no retailer can do anything about. The only option is to increase prices which in the current climate isn’t possible.

    It’s a simple equation. Deal with parking and access. Take the pressure off with an immediate rates reduction. Deal with excessive rents through zoning and properly implementable rent control and reduce VAT.

    For example Oxford city centre have been raising parking charges consistently for the past several years. The result – we now have a much lower footfall and trade has plummeted. Whereas up the road in Witney (a much smaller town) a new shopping development was built with free parking. They are doing very well there, even though they have a much smaller offer to Oxford city centre.

    It’s not rocket science to see where the problems have been created. It doesn’t take 7 months and the creation of a new minister to figure out what needs to be done. It does however take the will to do it.

    The Portas review and the subsequent circus events are too little too late. If this is how the government sees their role in tackling the issue, rather than taking action on the one problem they could solve tomorrow (i.e rates levels) I think we’re whistling in the wind.

    I agree with you about the online equation though. If I was thinking of setting up a new retail business now, the last thing I’d do is take bricks and mortar premises. The internet is now maturing into a channel that in itself is going to have a huge impact on the current leasing and overheads model. Unfortunately though I think we’ll need to see a lot more blood on the high streets (metaphorically speaking) before landlords and governments wake up to the crisis that is brewing while they babble about Golden Tickets and market stalls.

    • Clare Rayner says:

      Some brilliant comments here, and so true these issues have been raised by various bodies – BIRA, BRC, ATCM etc etc for a good 2-3 years and when I blogged my views on Portas review my thoughts were that it was a bit of a “damp squib” – I had really hoped, for the sake of the sector, that she would deliver some greatly innovative ideas that were going to help in a step-change. But no. It was primarily a repackaging of a wide variety of other reports BUT, and at least, it did get the attention of Government and media… sadly that’s not enough and action is not just too little too late but presently it is non-existent!
      I was involved in the analysis of a piece of research commissioned by Drapers with MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk. Many of the points you raise were in there, and dire issues for the Independent retailers who’d commented in the study. It really astonishes me that STILL nothing is being done!
      I also own and trade my various businesses from premises in St Albans, in that way I am my own landlord BUT there is a 3rd party investor and the lease does require upward only reviews… luckily they have decided NOT to implement those. Our rates have shot up, and, with the planned increases in April it is really desperately concerning… Still, we provide workspace, meeting rooms and postal receiving for about 60+ SMEs in the area and as we have free on street parking at least we’re accessible. NO. The council want to extend the controlled zone and sell resident permits. There are about 3 business premises on the street, a pub and 2 offices (including mine). We’re apparently an insignificant minority. My heart is COMPLETELY behind every retailer in situ (as opposed to online with opportunity to trade from potentially anywhere). I am experiencing in my own business the impact of the aggressively price sensitive market, the reluctance in parting with money, the utter drain on cash of the rates (thankfully we’ve been treated kindly by the co-owner for our rental portion, I am dreading the day that steps up) and finally now the risk of no parking for our clients to visit the premises, use the meeting room, pick up the post! In this I am not only “championing for the retailers” I am in the same [sinking?] town-centre ship with them!
      Anyway, I digress, I just wanted to context my feelings as I still maintain, as you do Ian, that these issues *should* be hygiene factors – the VAT, rates, rent, parking, security, cleanliness issues are things that COULD, at least in part, be addressed in a moment. The much much more critical situation is the re-engagement of consumers, working harmoniously with online and THAT is where the Portas review simply isn’t going far enough, being creative enough. I have one hope though… all those towns who submit their ideas for a share of a miserly million…. THEY will be the ones with the real innovation and answers and perhaps this “contest” is actually a case of “borrowing their watch to tell them the time” because the response will provide the government, local councils etc, who haven’t really got a clue where to start, with everything they need to set about designing the future model! Perhaps this is actually an extremely clever way of engaging feedback from the heart of the retail communities.
      We’ll have to wait and see!

  4. Tina Boden says:

    Clare’s comments about a mix of core Multiple and Independent Retailers making a welcoming High Street is evident in my home town of Scarborough where yesterday’s visit to our town centre saw it bustling with people – we have core multiples, we have independents on streets leading off our main high street, we have a Post Office, Bars & Cafes and we have few empty shops. Though we have a small out of town retail park this is not too big to dominate and all in all, though our local community may not appreciate it, we are lucky. In 2009 Scarborough was awarded the Most Enterprising Place in Britain title before going on and winning Most Enterprising Place in Europe 2010 and towns that have over come adversity to generate a positive model should be encouraged to help other towns as part of the ‘Portas Pilot’.

    Scarborough is a seaside town that has seasonal unemployment issues, we have problems with alcohol and drugs on the streets and we have young people ‘hanging about’ with nowhere to go but our Town Centre management appear to be aware of the situations arising in the town centre and act on it in most cases making the environment a ‘hygienic’ one.

    Scarborough is by no means perfect but it certainly is working hard to ensure it maintains a thriving Community spirit and Enterprise Rockers are proud to be based here and be part of it. As Clare says the key is community – consult and care for them when encouraging them to say ‘I Got It Local’.

    • Jacqui says:

      Tina, it is so good to hear some positive feedback…. Sooooh much negativity is so disparaging and has a very unhealthy, demoralising and contagious effect. As you so rightly point out, Scarborough does have issues like any other town/city during the depths of this economic downturn. It is remaining positive and sharing what is good rather than bemoaning the bad that will ultimately see us through this recession.

      Our own Town Team are looking at the positive aspects our town has to offer and are looking to enrich both the visitor & local shoppers experience. We have many local independant businesses in town which help it not be clone-like. Many of these businesses are already working positively towards a collaborative approach in addressing some of the regeneration issues Mary Portas highlighted in her report.

      I feel priviledged to be part of a group of independant retailers who are supporting each others business through a variety of collaborative approaches such as cross-trading, cross-advertising and recommendation of like-minded, reputable businesses.

      As you so rightly point out, Scarborough is by no means perfect, but with a positive and collaborative community approach to addressing some of the more negative aspects we can, and will survive.

  5. Clare Rayner says:

    Hi Tina
    Thanks for your comments and sharing an example of a town that is “working”. I don’t think we can ever assume our towns will be idyllic places any more, the twee places described in an Enid Blyton novel, but the fact that there are “real life” issues in Scarborough and still the business community has been able to develop a model relevant to the locals such that the town is doing OK, I’d say thriving, but in the current economy that’s unlikely, but at least Scarborough is a great deal better off than many towns up and down the UK today.

  6. Gayle Owen says:

    Heywood is a small town in between Bury & Rochdale, I was in the indoor market
    recently to see a market trader, I was surprised to see that the little indoor market
    was buzzing and quite busy – having spent some time in the market hall and talking
    to traders I wondered by it was busy. My freind on the shoe stall explained to me that
    every customer when they buy something from shoes to sweets they get a raffle ticket
    and once a week someone wins £50 to spend in the market hall and once a month there is a
    draw to win a TV. This must be a big factor why the market is busy and obvioulsly the
    traders also have a chance for someone to spend there £50 on their stall !
    This is a message that I think should be spread around all market halls.
    I also beleive in good customer service, if retailers want more business then they need
    to offer good service with a smile !

  7. Pandora's Box says:

    Reblogged this on Pandora's Box.

  8. Pandora's Box says:

    I agree with Ian that these issues should have been looked at over 3 years ago, however as per usual it takes our government (past and present) far too long to act on anything quickly and be pro-active. This ‘too slow to catch a cold’ approach is unfortunately what has led to the demise of our high street/towns, because we had it so good for so long. It’s understandable and human nature that we potter and become complacent when things are good. However, all the best Entrepreneurs come out of adversity and adversity brings out a sense of camaraderie, which is exactly what is happening now. There is no point in blaming, or wasting our time and energy on the ‘what could have beens’, we need to focus on the issues and be as pro active as possible on ‘what could be’.

    I am a small business owner based in a small ‘dying’ market town. We have tried pretty much everything to increase footfall and stay in business. We decided to expand our business at the back end of 2007, just before this big cloud hit! This means we have more than double our original rent, rates, staff and other fixed costs coupled with a rapidly decreasing footfall. During this time, we have battled our way through as each year passes. As each Christmas comes around (our busiest time of the year), we work tirelessly, whilst at the same time keeping everything crossed, hoping that this Christmas takings will be how they once were! Of course they’re not. We went online in 2010, to move in the right direction, however being online poses its own problems too. You need the resources to dedicate time and money to make it a success. Also, running an online business along side a bricks and mortar business has issues as far as costs and sharing stock etc are concerned. Social media is where it’s all at, and I fully understand what to do and and how to do it, but I simply don’t have the time to make it a success. Already majorly pushed for time, as a small business owner with limited resources, you can only do so much. The frustrating thing is, I am fully aware of what needs to be done and in the main how to do it, which makes it worse!

    I agree with Clare that the ‘Portas Pilot’, or ‘Golden ticket’ is a positive step in the right direction. Mary might not necessarily be the right person (but then who is??), however her celebrity endorsement and dedication to this cause and real issue will certainly make things happen. There will always be criticism for her and people like her, but we need people like Mary to move things a long. She’s not too slow to catch a cold, but if she got one she’d certainly work through it night and day until she got what she wanted. I come from the Mary Portas school of tenacity and whilst I can see many holes in her report and issues (some of which Clare has highlighted), it’s a good start.

    I agree with Clare that shifting the blame up to the landlords, putting them all in the same bracket and putting too much pressure on them is wrong as it will only have an adverse affect. I also agree that we have to listen to our ‘lost’ customers and find out what they want out of their towns. It has to be fair though. To succeed in building back up our lost towns and high streets it’s all about an amalgamation of thoughts, desires, innovation and hard work.

  9. Michelle says:

    Another interesting read. I for one had a great time taking part in last years indie month and relish the opportunity to work with other independents this year. At bird’s yard we house on average 50 local designers, so already work together and firmy believe we are a perfect example of some of mary portas review. I do hope you will get up to see us some time soon Clare

  10. Pingback: It’s official: 2011 was a year of growth for Independents #indieretail @IndieRetailUK | Clare Rayner: The Retail Champion

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