Wiltshire Publications

Issue 504 – What can Westbury learn from high street report? Mary Portas review outlines recommendations to revive town centres

RETAIL guru Mary Portas has released her independent review into the future of the country’s high streets, putting forward her recommendations that could help revive towns like Westbury.

In June, when the government commissioned Mary Portas to undertake the review, a White Horse News initiative asked key figures in the town what they thought of the state of Westbury’s high street.
Now published, Mary Portas’ review envisions the country’s high streets as the “hub of the community”, thriving with both economic and community life. She says, “My vision for the future of high streets is of multifunctional and social places which offer a clear and compelling purpose and experience that’s not available elsewhere, and which meets the interests and needs of the local people.”
Her recommendations include creating a “town team” – a group of different stakeholders who make up a visionary, strategic, and strong operational management team; removing unnecessary regulations to encourage more markets while introducing a national market day to encourage new traders; considering whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers; and offering a free controlled parking scheme. She also concludes that removing free parking from town centres leaves local businesses with a competitive disadvantage.
David Jenkins, president of Westbury Chamber of Commerce, said that while her ideas are good ones, it will rely on the initiative of local stakeholders to put them into action.
“I found the report interesting and informative,” he said. “The majority of the information does make sense and I am encouraged by her ideas and in an ideal world if most of the points were adopted it would contribute towards a positive and constructive way forward to the improvement in town centres and high streets.
“Unfortunately, however, in these difficult economic times I don’t think it’s possible to achieve this all at once. The best way forward would be to aim for a couple of the points to start, such as the improvement of communication between all the parties concerned, a willingness to do something about it and a change of attitude, on the basis that the others will be developed later.
“With regards to some of the points such as the development of town teams and stakeholders, the reviving of the town centre as a social place for the community and better business rates, this, I feel, can only be achieved from the bottom up with communication and a determination to succeed.
“There has to be a willingness to adapt, attitudes have to change and people participate in order to make it happen, otherwise it will stay the same and Westbury High Street will be like it is now in five years’ time. Mary Portas is correct in that high streets of the 1960s (Westbury is a classic example) need to change to be brought into the 21st century.
“I am happy to discuss ideas from any business or likewise any individual member of the community.”
Cllr Sue Ezra, chair of the town council’s town centre viability working group, welcomes ideas to encourage a wide variety of businesses into the town, but questions how effective they could be. “I find her ideas do have some merit but she needs to realise the council can’t tell retailers or landlords what trades to open. The shops [in Westbury] may not be what we require, but at least we have tenants.
“She needs to look at small towns as well as bigger ones. No big shop is going to come to Westbury, we just don’t have the premises and we don’t want something built somewhere else. The main point would be for Wiltshire Council to bring back the one-hour parking.”
In her report, Mary Portas says, “To remove controlled free parking from our town centres puts them at a massive competitive disadvantage.
“In these times of financial hardship and public spending reductions, it is clear to me that local councils will have a firm eye on the things that drive revenue, parking clearly being one of them. Yet I fundamentally believe that to increase the cost of parking in a locality (when there are alternatives offering free parking elsewhere) is to curtail the appeal of that location to the shopping consumer and therefore the longer term economic viability and wellbeing of the area.”
Cllr Sue Ezra agreed, saying, “The main problem is car parking charges. I would like to see county give back free car parking for all Wiltshire towns.”
David Jenkins, president of the Westbury Chamber of Commerce said, “Car parking is one issue that has affected the community, motorists and traders see the charges as one of the main reasons for the down turn in business. Wiltshire Council’s Conservative administration identified car parking as a source of income and decided in April 2011 to implement the charges. I have disagreed with this ludicrous decision both as president of the Chamber of Commerce and a councillor since it was first made, not only by writing to the leader of the council but also requesting at the meeting of Wiltshire’s full council, for Westbury to have its car parking managed at a local level. Even this would have a disadvantage as in order to get “free car parking”, charges would still apply indirectly as it would mean an increase in the precept. In my view it is still better to have the local community manage the car parking.”