The Pearly Queen of the High Street?


Whatever Mary Portas says in the various interviews she’s given about her new show ‘Mary Queen of the High Street’, Tuesday’s airing of the programme featuring Roman Road was little more than the same script we’ve seen played out in most of her recent series.  It may have been a fresh approach all those years ago when she first clattered on to our screens, but it’s now a tired, tawdry format that her production company have milked almost to death.  Indeed according to some of the local traders involved the experience was less than regal for many of them.

Amongst all the hype and hyperbole that’s surrounded the Mary’s involvement in the government’s high street revival plans, she’s always been right about one thing.  This is a serious issue, affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people.  So it deserved rather more that what we saw on Tuesday.  This should have been a serious documentary.  Instead we got a barely watchable ‘show’ as in ‘show-biz’. 

As with most of her more recent programmes this was all about Mary, dressed up to the nines, posing for the cameras and promoting the Portas brand.  Mary sashaying about , Mary pointing and gesticulating and having staged encounters with traders and the general public.  Mary deep in discussion with the public about how well or otherwise she comes across on TV.

shopping-in-paris-thumb9157330Timing is everything

Time that should have been spent dealing with serious structural problems facing the area was wasted on jaunts to Paris and interminable tracking shots of Mary walking up and down rows of stalls talking about rain covers.  Finally we had her usual trademark finale set piece : This time a good old East End knees-up.  Just in case she hadn’t already patronised the locals enough.

Yet we’re told there wasn’t enough time in all this to feature progress she claims to have made with the council over parking charges and restrictions.  Probably the one thing that most of the retailers in the area were most concerned about.  Certainly something that was in her report and something she suddenly seems to have accepted as key to regeneration, albeit maybe only in interviews in the run up to her new show.  It was also something that was raised in her early brief encounter with the hairdressers in the programme.  Oddly enough we never seemed to return to them to discover what they thought of her ‘improvements’ to the area.

No Makeover

She claimed at the outset that it wasn’t going to be a makeover show, yet that’s exactly what we got.  When it came to it she couldn’t resist calling on her old standby approach : Pick one hapless retailer, march into their shop and spend a few moments deriding their wares. 

“Who’d buy that?” is one of her stock phrases, usually followed by a plaintive reply from the retailer that it’s one of their best lines.  Pure dismissal of the experience of the person that’s been there for a fair bit longer than she has, but good camera fodder, as she knows so well.  Then she sets about turning them into something more appealing.  Or rather her ‘team’ does.  Usually an easy win given that she usually picks on a store that even the most inexperienced shopkeeper could improve with a good clear-out and a lick of paint.

Yes the bric-a-brac shop looked great after the refit, and I totally agree that the person running the store was missing a trick.  But what she produced was a fully formed, niche retail experience.  Only problem is the niche customers are mostly in Mary’s head.  True, she found one or two in the local area, but one or two aren’t going spend enough to pay the proprietors rent, the rates and subsidise the council’s parking charges, nor would their business foot the bill for the fabulous refit, which I suspect was actually paid for by the TV company.  Mary’s hunch that these few boho locals were going to turn this person’s business around certainly didn’t justify the ludicrous idea that this small shop could be converted into an ‘anchor store’, 

The anchor store concept, which she borrowed from larger retail developments, requires a huge, already established, store to burst on the scene bringing in it’s loyal band of customers.  It’s not something you can create simply by dint of location, as appears to be the case here.  Certainly something that’s difficult to achieve from a standing start.  Still I suppose it made it all Mary’s thrashing around for ideas seem terribly scientific and purposeful.  But in the end it was just tinkering, and tinkering with someone else’s business at that.  But then that’s always easier to do when you don’t have to face the consequences a few months down the line, as one or two other stores Mary has ‘made-over’ in the past have reportedly done.

questions and answersQuestions, questions

The end of the show left more questions than answers.  What indeed had been done about the parking?  How were the original stallholders doing after Mary’s changes?  How many of them were left?  Were any of them removed to make way for her newcomers?  How were the existing Food & Beverage uses doing in the face of the new competition she’s introduced?

I’ve never doubted Mary’s veracity or her enthusiasm for what she’s doing. At the outset I was optimistic that she had the public profile as well as the chutzpah to fight the corner for retail against an obviously blasé government. 

But since her report was published she’s been swept away with the razzmatazz that was introduced by the government officials behind it.  The Willy Wonka Golden Ticket claims from the then minister responsible Grant Shapps.  The audition videos to became a Portas Pilot.  The branding of the whole experience itself.  It’s like it was all designed to take the focus off the most important issues facing retailers today : Rent, Rates and Parking, all of which were highlighted in Mary’s report only to be subsequently ignored by Shapps and his successor Mark Prisk. 

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that government spin doctors, much more accomplished in the dark arts of misdirection than Portas, used her wide eyed naïveté and dangled such shiny things in front of her.  She could easily have eschewed such distractions and pushed home her very well pitched report.  Refused to be driven off the course that she has constantly claimed to be on : That of dealing with the structural issues that have destroyed the high street over the past several years.  But when the chips were down she instead took the government’s shilling and disappeared down her usual rabbit hole of self promotion, hoopla and car crash, reality TV sham.

Infamy! Infamy!  They’ve all got it in for me! 

infamyIn a final twist of the ridiculous, Mary is now starting to claim that criticism of her is based on a political motive.  Where this originates from is a mystery to most commentators, certainly to me.  She’s quite right that she was given the perfect opportunity to cut through the political divides with her appointment by David Cameron all those moons ago.  But she blew it when let herself be sucked into the party machinery that she’s now crying foul of.  That has a lot less to do with politics and more with personal interest and ego.  Something no one has ever accused her of lacking in abundance.

If this first show is what we can expect as the culmination of her grand masterwork, I really don’t think it was worth the wait.  At best it was boring and mildly entertaining.  At worst it was selling retailers up the river for some cheap voyeurism and an easy TV fee. 

With the air date having apparently put back several times, it showed all the hallmarks of something cobbled together to try to fulfil the hopes of her TV production company.  The same company that has been tagging along since the Portas Pilot winners were announced and the same company that allegedly lobbied government over the most TV friendly locations to award the pilot money to.

In the end the only ratings values these people care about are the ones for the show, not those forcing many of the faces they’re using on screen out of business. 

Ultimately what we saw achieved nothing, except to fill a Portas sized hole in the Channel 4 schedule.  I like to think the livelihoods of independent retailers up and down the country are worth more than that.  Up until last night I thought Mary Portas felt the same.


9 thoughts on “The Pearly Queen of the High Street?

  1. Come on – you are being entirely too harsh here, we’re all able to criticize Mary and her methods, yet are we not ALL failing to help the High St? I am not sure it was the greatest place to start as there did not appear to be an anchor store anywhere on the particular High Street, yet literally 1000’s of streets across the UK would seem to be suffering the same fate as Roman Road.

    Yes you can say that what she is doing is self promotion, repetitive and most of the work is done by her team… Yet some retailers are stuck decades out of date and sadly vastly out of tough with what the consumer wants… All she is doing is offering a point of view.

    I commend Mary on doing what she has done and the experience she has, when it comes down to it you need a hell of a lot more than a shop refit to fix the high street anywhere!

    For a slightly more positive view on Mary and her work – check out my blog tomorrow 😉

  2. Thanks for the comment Pete. Yes I am being harsh and I’d agree Mary’s an easy person to criticise, but that’s largely her own fault. I’ve always been somewhat sceptical about her involvement with this project, but in the early days I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt.

    Her report was well written and researched, and it included recommendations that, had they been adopted by government, would have had an immediate impact on the problems all high streets face.

    But the real meat of the report, dealing with things like parking charges and rates, were not accepted by the government and she apparently let that slide without a seconds objection.

    Even then I thought she’d have the PR nouse to pursue the case for retailers from within government circles and push our case in her face to face meetings with key politicians. Yet I’ve seen no evidence of this. The only time she’s really shown any backbone about such matters was in interviews with the popular press during the publicity run up to the launch of the show.

    Then the show itself validated my reservations when she simply applied the same old make-over formula to an issue that goes far beyond such simplistic panaceas. We should have had a hard-hitting documentary showing the plight of retailers and local residents in areas that are being crushed by government intransigence and lack of proper policy. That might have redeemed her in my eyes.

    But, for me, travesties like we saw last week just underline how little she’s achieved given the time and resources she’s had available. If you want to see fluffy reality TV then fine, but if you want someone who’s going to really stand up for retailers it’s not her. She’s plainly out of her depth and far too easily bought off by pointless PR exercises and ego trips.

    I’ll look forward to reading your opinion on her in your blog though.

    • Ian

      Strange when you look at it that way, you have a point – however this is prime time entertainment and like so many ‘fix your business’ reality shows that air year in and year out there has to be a reason to watch them.

      Agreed she does seem to fold at some issues and then just sprinkle fairy dust on a shop to make it all better. A little like when Heston overhauled the Little Chef menu. No matter what changes he made, the business had no intention of making the changes.

      For any High Street to survive, with a Mary or without – people have to want to go there! So many towns around Oxford struggle based on the fact that nobody wants to go there or worse, when they get there they can not park! Bicester being a prime example!

      Rates – I guess you can answer that issue better than I. However there is nothing stopping retailers renegotiating lease terms and there should be council subsidies for new business opening in a high street. After all a shop with a business in has to be far better than a boarded up unit!

      Mary on the TV is just entertainment, the proof will be in the pudding and lets see what changes she can make.

    • There have been rumors of fallings out amongst Town Teams and Local Authorities and criticism of the TTs’ failure to spend significant amounts of their share of the hundred, or in many cases, ten grand they were expected to perform miracles with. Little wonder.

      The unsettling wind of perpetual restructuring continues to blow through the corridors of power, or not as the case may be, in many Town Halls up and down the country and the relationship with central Government is often fractious. Many valued local authority officers with years of experience and knowledge have been restructured into oblivion and replaced by a veritable army of ‘Interim’ this and that’s who perform their quest to cut jobs and budgets with religious zeal.

      Morale amongst many of my former Local Authority colleagues is at an all time low and the journey up in the lift every morning is conducted in silence at best, or accompanied by the gloomy roll-call of who has gone this week and who is due for the chop next, at worst.

      No doubt local authorities will come in for a bashing at some point during HRH’s tour of the Empire, but I have some sympathy with LA’s who were, I
      assume, supposed to welcome TT’s and their riches with open arms and assist them to perform miracles. The volunteers who opted to take on this monumental task certainly deserve to be supported, but there really needs to be a reality check here around relationship building and the extent of cosiness which can be fostered in a difficult professional climate.

      I only hope that public/ private partnerships will continue to grow and develop as they have done over the past twenty years, and that these new volunteers will bring a breathe of fresh air to tired Town Halls and their communities.

  3. I think you’ve just hit on part of the problem. People aren’t aware of the real issues that are killing the high street, and programmes like these just make it far too simplistic.

    I trade in central Oxford so know first hand the impact that parking has had on the city, but still nothing is done about it. Moreover councils are having budgets cut and so feel justified to use retailers and the parking revenue they attract as cash cows.

    Rates are non-negotiable and even though councils have the powers now to introduce their own subsidies and rates discounts, they can’t because of the same cuts mentioned above. It gives central government the opportunity to blame the lack of a reduction on local councils though.

    Negotiating rents is only possible in some areas. Certainly not in Oxford right now. Two sets of landlords to my knowledge have recently increased rents. On by 90%! Meanwhile the council themselves, who act as landlords for the traders in the covered market, are currently trying to impose an average 50% increase on the predominantly independent stores that trade there.

    As for boarded up shops, we have a problem with landlords all over leveraged with large loans taken out during the property boom. If they accept a reduction in rent, they also have to allow for a reduction in their equity to loan ratios. That in turn would trigger a call in on some or all of that debt. Hence we have landlords who sit on empty properties that are over-rented, rather than accept a lower rent and a lower valuation. That’s also triggered the upsurge in the pop-up phenomenon whereby they can claim that temporary lets don’t have a long term effect on portfolio values. Pop-up of course sounds so much more sexy than ‘temporary let’.

    All these problems are growing and will eventually become insurmountable in the future. That’s the message we needed to be got across to the general public in a documentary about the high street. Especially one hosted by a person nominated by the government to tackle serious issues such as these.

    None of them are going to be solved by a lick of paint, a trip to Paris and a knees up.

  4. Great post Ian and clearly you have a lot of insight on the subject. Having watched the Margate episode last night and chatted with lots of local traders and people like yourself via twitter today, I know there’s a general feeling that the programme has not been great publicity for the town and that it has even brought divisiveness into the regeneration process which is a terrible shame.

    I’m sure Mary could not have set out to actively cause damage and I hope the publicity the participating towns are getting will do some good but it does seem that this has been a cynical exercise in many ways. It has failed to address key factors and did nothing to highlight some of the great initiatives and amenities the town has that might have encouraged more people to come and visit. Ooverall it has probably been more of a hindrance than a help to Margate. A lot of us feel very jaded this morning.

  5. Thanks Lorraine. I know many of the people down there who were involved in the original Town Team, including Louise, Rox and Robin. I’ve also had a run or two with Mary and I know who I’d rather go for a pint with!

    I don’t think Margate came out of the show too badly. In fact it was barely featured really. In between clips of Mary justifying herself and bemoaning her lot in her usual passive/aggressive style, and clips of the indomitable Billy, I don’t think we saw much of the town. Sadly we also didn’t see any of the great things the people have done there either.

    It seems that if an idea didn’t sprout from under that carrot topped bob, it wasn’t worth any airtime.

  6. I wonder that no-one, including Ms Portas seems to be querying the absolute lack of good soild empirical research into the issues. You mention parking Ian, it may be the case that parking is an issue, but often these claims are because the local out of town centres have lashings of car parking space for customers and these are usually free. How though is it then possible that some smaller high streets which offer free parking are also having problems?
    You mention rates; I personally believe this to be an historical throw-back and I have evidence which indicates that smaller businesses are disadvantagedover all others in the current system, yet it is rarely one of the issues first raised by local traders groups when asked about prevailing issues.

    I was speaking with a retailer this morning in a northern market town where her three year lease is coming to an end. She has built up a great business but the rent and the rates hit her profitability that could be improved by moving to another part of town – but that will obviously hit her current area with a new void in a key position (for that area). But rates and rents are nonetheless only a part of the picture, there are many and complex issues, that you rightly point out are either ignored or glossed over by Mary Portas and other pundits who claim to be expert but actually have no real experience or skills to cover the range of issues under discussion. In my eyes, each town is unique and has its own set of peculiar issues that need to be addressed. It is only when the function and the dynamics of the town are understood that the issues can be attacked and that can only come from real research and not from opinion, even the opinion of someone who trades there!

    I once started a local trade group in the town where I was then trading from, my store was long established and had seen the major players slowly decamp elsewhere. I had over one hundred participants and was able with their blessing to represent them at local government committees. I know from my conversations and meetings with them, that their opinion was often in complete contrast to the opinion expressed by their immediate neighbours, which surely says something about opinion, no matter how experienced that person is in terms of years of trading!

    I think I ought to get back to writing my own blog!

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