2 Sep 2013

Mary Portas hits back at Grimsey over high street report

Mary Portas hits back at retail chief Bill Grimsey, who criticised her “nostalgic” approach to saving the high street, as the two retail giants do battle.

She may be known as the Queen of Shops, but Mary Portas has been fighting off criticism of her approach to overhauling the high street.

Launching his new review of the high street, Bill Grimsey, former Iceland and Wickes chief executive, dismissed Ms Portas’s scheme, set up two years ago, as “little more than a PR stunt”.

In a pointed stab at Ms Portas, his introduction to The Vanishing High Street reads: “It won’t be flashy, there won’t be a TV series at the end of it and we won’t be calling on Chas’n’Dave.”

But Ms Portas took a swipe back at Mr Grimsey on Monday, saying his review appeared to demonstrate no hope nor care for the high street. Her Channel 4 show, Mary Queen of the High Street, promised to “put local people at the heart of the solution”.

But speaking to MPs on the communities and local government committee, Ms Portas admitted that she was not used to navigating politics. She said she would have liked more support from the government in “navigating” the criticism against her, adding: “I don’t know what my role is apart from being a campaigner, and I suppose I wasn’t used to politics.”

‘It’s not my scheme’

She also appeared to distance herself from the so-called Portas Pilots, where 12 towns are chosen to receive government help with reviving their high street. saying: “I don’t work for Portas Pilots… it’s not my scheme, they are a government initiative.” She added that saving the high street was “not one of David Cameron’s priorities”.

The big players have made a lot of money out of the high street over the years, and they should put something back. Bill Grimsey

In his alternative (self-funded) review, which will be presented to MPs on 4 September, Mr Grimsey said that 20,000 independent shops are at risk of closure, and said that big companies had a responsibility to “put something back”.

He suggested a 0.25 per cent levy on companies with a turnover of over £10m from 2013, and put forward 31 recommendations to try to revive the high street.

Mr Grimsey is expected to call for a minister for high streets and say that town retail centres should incorporate education, arts, residential, leisure and technology facilities as part of a major overhaul.

Polarised proposals

For her part, Ms Portas told MPs that rejuvenating the high street was a long-term goal, and said incorporating online buying was crucial. She added: “Retailers need an incentive to set up on the high street. Business rates are the biggest barrier to growth.”

In the opposite corner, Mr Grimsey has called on the “big players” to take responsibility. “I honestly think the time has come for the big chains to put something back and help re-design the high street,” he said.

“What we’ve seen in a lot of secondary town centre locations is that as the chains move out to more lucrative out-of-town sites they’re hollowing out the high street.

“The big players have made a lot of money out of the high street over the years, and they should put something back. They could achieve far more than the government has and leave a lasting and powerful legacy. If this money was spent wisely it could make a massive difference.”