Home news Shopping choices shrink in Portas Pilot towns

Shopping choices shrink in Portas Pilot towns


Choices for shoppers in English town centres are shrinking, according to research for the BBC.

A survey of 12 government-funded “Portas Pilot” towns found nearly 1,000 shops had disappeared in five years.

The towns were awarded a share of a £1.2m fund, government support and access to retail guru Mary Portas.

But Ms Portas was critical of the scheme, saying it was a “weighted PR campaign” that hadn’t kick-started growth.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said that following the pilot schemes, it was focused on “sharing the learning from successful areas”.

The government will support people as they try to adapt and make the most of their High Streets, the department added.

Empty shops

The “Portas Pilots” were created to showcase innovative ways of getting people back into local shops.

The pilot areas are Bedford, Croydon, Dartford, Greater Bedminster, Liskeard, Margate, Market Rasen, Nelson, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees and Wolverhampton.

Over five years there’s been a net loss of nearly 1,000 shops in the towns, a drop of 17%.

That equates to the loss of one shop every 22 days.

The choice of shops also decreased. The number of shops selling big ticket items such as clothes and electrical goods declined in all but three of the towns.

The research, carried out by the Local Data Company (LDC) for BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours, found that in total there had been a net loss of 996 retail units.

Matthew Hopkinson, LDC director, said: “This is very common up and down the country. Because there are more empty shops in town centres, businesses from the fringes of these towns are relocating into the heart of town centres.”

He added: “This leaves more redundant space on the edge of town centres”.


Empty spaces both in and out of town centres can be re-purposed for other uses such as for housing and offices.

Over the five years, vacancy rates in 10 of the 12 Portas town centres have fallen.

This may be because different types of business move in, or because units are taken out of use.

Mr Hopkinson said there are not more empty units, but there may be fewer shops in general.

Some councils are changing the use of buildings, or even knocking them down, or focusing the retail offer on a smaller area in the town centre, he added.

Ms Portas told the BBC she predicted five years ago that there would be less retail space on High Streets.

At that time, she was asked by then Prime Minister David Cameron to review the state of UK High Street retail.

She said there will be a continued contraction of town centre shopping in the years to come, adding: “There are areas of the country where people have cottoned onto this.

“We’re spending our money on eating out, socialising and wellbeing. Therefore we should be building the right places and spaces for the future to cater for how people want to live.”

Despite being critical of the scheme, Ms Portas said she is proud of what her pilot towns have achieved. “Never underestimate people-power because that is what it came down to,” she said.

But she told You and Yours that she had hoped her review would serve to highlight real issues facing the UK’s town centres and that government would have taken more action.

“That didn’t happen. It was a weighted PR campaign which looked like ‘Hey, we’re doing something’ and I hoped it might kick start something – but it didn’t”.

A DCLG spokesperson said: “High streets and town centres are at the heart of our local and regional economies – creating jobs, nurturing small businesses and injecting billions of pounds into our economy.

“Following the Portas Review, the previous government launched the ‘Portas Pilots’ and provided £3.35m to 335 High Streets… with local teams creating projects to meet their own needs.

“The focus now is sharing the learning from successful areas and making sure we support local people in realising the long-term potential of their High Streets and town centres.”

Source: BBC