Business

Portas Pilots: Why finding a new shop can be hard to do

Nelson, in Lancashire, was one of 12 towns which last year received £100,000 to try to revive its High Street.

It was in the first wave of Portas Pilots, named after the retail consultant Mary, who was asked by the government to breathe life into struggling town centres.

One year on, the former Lancashire mill town has spent about £15,000 of its cash prize. But for the Town Team, a group of local people set up to drive change, it was never really about the money.

As Sally Burrell, the chair of the team, put it, "Mary lit a spark" that energised people into trying to make a difference.

Money has been spent on trying out some new ideas like outdoor sports activities and a student discount scheme to try to bring people into the centre.

The most successful event was a vintage market. They held it twice and several thousand people came. But the enthusiasm and ideas have yet to translate into any sign of lasting change.

Those fundamental problems remain and according to our research, the going is getting tougher.

Accelerating decline

Although the council has helped bring around half a dozen new businesses into the town, researched commissioned for BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme suggests that more business have actually closed over the past year in Nelson.

It used to be a thriving town, but in recent years shoppers have been going elsewhere to buy things, especially to more convenient out-of-town retail parks or larger centres like nearby Burnley. The recession and the rise of online shopping have simply accelerated the town's decline.

There was never going to be a quick fix for towns like Nelson. A visit to Dave Hartley's electrical shop gives a glimpse into why progress can be painfully slow.

From his small store, he sells a mixture of white goods and remote-controlled toys. There is also a very large tropical fish tank, waiting for a buyer.

He told me he barely breaks even these days. He has also got just three months left to run on his lease. The building is being sold and he has got to move.

Instead of throwing in the towel, he wants to move to bigger and better premises in the town.

"I want to keep on trading and keep on fighting. I love the town and I love what I do," he says.

But here's the thing. Dave says he cannot secure a decent empty unit. And he is in a place full of boarded-up, vacant shops.

Pushing through change

One big unit I walked past used to be rented by a national chain but it pulled out in the last 18 months or so. But it is still tied into a long lease and paying rent to the landlord.

Dave Hartley
Retailer Dave Hartley wants to move but can't find a vacant shop to rent

It is not in the landlord's interest to allow the retailer to surrender the lease unless he has another tenant who would be willing to pay the same amount of rent that a big household name would pay.

Dave would like to take the property on, but at a more realistic price.

And he is still going to have to pay business rates based on property values set at the top of the market, back in 2007.

It's just one of a host of structural issues which the Town Teams, a key Portas initiative, are grappling with.

They are now getting more support through government-funded advisors to try to push through change.

Lisa Durkin, from the Association of Town and City Management, is helping Nelson.

"We need to create a level playing field so that retailers in town centres can compete with online and out-of-town locations," she told me.

"High Streets need to combine the enthusiasm generated by Mary Portas and her review with realistic and well-managed plans.

"In practice, that means lower business rates, affordable parking, a retail mix that fits the local community and realistic rents by landlords."

The government says the Portas Pilots are breathing new life into town centres. The work here in Nelson has only really just begun.

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