What have the Portas town teams achieved so far?

It’s six months since the first Portas Pilot town teams were announced. Clare Cummings investigates what they’ve been up to, and assesses their potential for creating lasting change in town centres.

Last year’s Portas Review set out a vision to ‘breathe economic and community life back into our high streets’ and its first recommendation for doing this was the formation of ‘town teams’. These should be ‘visionary, strategic and strong operational management teams for high streets’, the review said, which bring together a range of local stakeholders to find new ways of making town centres bustle again.

Town teams have certainly been busy in the six months since their launch, delivering a range of events and schemes, from markets to loyalty cards. But key to the success of the town team pilots is swift and effective engagement with local businesses, community groups and members of the public. The town teams need to bring often competing factions together to create a forum for decision-making and action; after six months some areas are still struggling to establish effective partnerships and gain consensus for change.

In Wolverhampton, the town team is taking decisions and delivering initiatives through an existing city centre partnership Wolverhampton One, but in most towns, teams need to create a mechanism for decision-making and project delivery from scratch. With relatively short-term funding, working with a broad range of organisations is proving a difficult undertaking for some.

In Leamington, for example, the town team has reported issues in dealing with initial territorialism and conflicts of interest and in winning the confidence of the local council to work without their close supervision.   While support from the general public and community has come easily in most areas, engaging with private landlords and national retailers has been far more difficult.

In Bedminster, the team has postponed its plan to create pop-up shops because private landlords are not interested in participating and there is little pressure that the team can put on landlords to cooperate.

With relatively short-term funding, working with a broad range of organisations is proving a difficult undertaking for some.

Some teams have also had difficulty engaging national retailers in their projects since these retailers do not have headquarters in the town or a particular affinity with the town.

A recurring question around the town teams’ work is how they are using their £100,000 grants.  Some teams, such as Bedminster, have chosen to dedicate a chunk of their funding to employ a paid project manager while other projects are run entirely by volunteers. The Croydon town team has been criticised for spending £5,000 on a mural on a neglected pedestrian underpass, while others are questioning whether £100,000 is really enough to make a noticeable and lasting impact on a town centre.

With sustainability in mind, the Bedminster town team is focusing on creating a Business Improvement District (BID) which will hopefully consist of all 450 businesses on the high street. So far they have received a reasonable response and the team estimates that the BID could raise £120,000 a year to support business in the town centre.

As the town teams progress however, their limitations will more apparent; in many cases longer-term legislative changes are needed to create deep and long-lasting change in town centres. In order for town teams to be able to engage with landlords, for example, a change in the law such as releasing data held by the land registry offices so that teams can actually contact landlords could make a difference. Business rates is a key sticking point preventing new businesses and services from locating in town centres.

Overall, however, the town teams are off to a productive and pro-active start despite the time needed to form partnerships, plan projects and resolve fights over how the grant will be spent. A pot of £100,000 may not stretch very far beyond markets, murals and pop-up shops but it could be that the town teams will have an important impact on town centres by generating interest and positivity in areas in decline. As the Leamington town team have observed, by talking positively about an area and creating projects to regenerate it, many other organisations and individuals have come forward with new plans and people are starting to stand up and be proud of their town centre. The activities of town teams are acting as a catalyst for future town development, bringing previously latent ideas to fruition.

Of more than 400 towns that applied to be a Portas Pilot town team, 12 were chosen in May 2012. Theses were awarded £100,000 grant to fund their proposed ideas as well as free support from retail industry leaders and a government contact to provide advice on growing local businesses. In July, a further 15 towns were selected to be town teams and 326 towns invited to become ‘town team partners’ which receive a smaller package of support.

In Rotherham, the town team has created Rotherham Voice, a forum for businesses and organisations in the town centre to share ideas and identify priorities for action. In Leamington the team has targeted community organisations as well as entrepreneurs to invite them to start a business in a pop-up shop. This has received a lot of enthusiasm from community groups, some of whom have joined together to add a commercial side to their community work.

The Portas recommendations emphasise the potential for town centre markets to bring towns back to life. The review proposed establishing a ‘National Market Day’ and reducing regulation on street trading to encourage entrepreneurs to try running a low-cost retail business. The town teams have clearly acted on this advice with at least eight having already organised markets in their towns. These range from a Suitcase Conga in Margate (pictured), where people were invited to bring a suitcase full of wares to sell in the street, to a programme of monthly themed markets ‘putting the market back into Market Rasen’.  The Market Rasen team has held four monthly markets as well as a pop-up market. The team has formed a working party with the town council to try to apply lessons learnt from the monthly Portas markets to the town’s weekly markets.

Portas Pilot town teams have been working on a variety of initiatives to support local businesses, including pop-up shops and business skills training. One of the key objectives of the Stockton-on-Tees town team is to connect local businesses to the cultural events taking place in Stockton throughout the year. To do this, the team capitalised on the Stockton International Riverside Festival in August to provide an opportunity for local restaurants to serve high quality, local food to festivalgoers. The team provided each business with a banner, leaflets and a gazebo on one the main routes to the festival.  Forest Hill, Kirkdale and Sydenham town team in Greater London is also working to provide sales opportunities to local businesses. Having secured three locations for Christmas pop-up shops, the team selected three businesses to use the shops from a large number of applications. In addition to business opportunities, some teams are providing business advice and support. In Market Rasen, the town team has been designing a business training and development programme to be launched alongside their retail units. The training involves a series of ‘breakfast briefings’ as well as boot camps, master classes and free one-on-one consultancy services and a ‘business buddy’ scheme.

The majority of the first wave of town teams have launched their own website and are using social media and e-bulletins to promote their activities and other events in the town centre. Many have made a concerted effort to attract media attention to their work and engage citizens in the process. In Bedford, the Portas team has joined up with local newspapers and media organisations to provide a one-day course in citizen journalism. Participants were trained in video and audio recording, social media, interviewing and writing for newspapers, to encourage more people to take part in reporting on the town team’s initiatives and also inspire people from the town to take an interest in local events and news. Similarly, the Wolverhampton town team is currently planning a ‘contemporary city criers’ and ‘roving reporters’ scheme to begin in the new year which will encourage students to report on town centre events.

Several town teams have already launched a town loyalty card, such as the Indi card in Braintree which is supported by more than 25 local businesses and is free to shoppers.  The Wolverhampton town team has also re-launched its Privilege loyalty card (pictured) which will now be free to members and businesses. The card originally cost £15 but the team decided to use some of the Portas funding to make the card free.  It can be used in over 100 outlets in the town centre and promotions are advertised easily through social media.  Since its re-launch in August, over 2000 people have signed up to the scheme.

The Portas review made it clear that town high streets must present a variety of activities alongside retail. It states: ‘The new high streets won’t just be about selling goods, they should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities’.  In line with this vision, various Portas Pilot town teams have been organising cultural and social events to bring a broad section of the community back into their town centre.  The town team in Nelson has been active in engaging young people and students in town centre activities. It is offering paid, part-time positions to students from the local colleges to get involved in the town team’s work and they are working with one of the colleges to hold a fresher’s week in the town centre. Following suggestions from local students, the team organised a six-week sports programme in the town centre, consisting of lunchtime yoga and morning bootcamp classes to create unusual ways of attracting people into the town.




















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Dr Gwyn Rowley
Dr Gwyn Rowley
11 years ago

The Portas Report has a number of ideas culled from various sources yet lacks both a conceptual/academic base, a business-marketing understanding and related developed strategy. Its apparent message, beloved by politicians, is that ‘something is being done’. The actual funding is chicken feed and short-termist, that fail to address the broader integrative functions of town centres and the base need to consider the harmonization of those activities;as retail, commercial-professional, cultural, religious and leisure, into an urban functional whole.

Jim Leask
Jim Leask
11 years ago

I agree with Gwyn. The Portas Review is really a neo-populist cri de coeur for yesterday’s view of the Town Centre. It lacks real engagement with the shift to online sales and the terrain for action needs to be the interface between real-time visits, repeated, and the digital challenge. Being King Canute never did turn the tide! Bless, Mary!!

Ben Barker
Ben Barker
11 years ago

I also agree with Gwyn. This is a tiny sum aimed to make the government look as if it’s doing something, whilst they avoid some of the harder issues. On the otherhand, I chair the steering group that leads on the Bedminster Town Team. We now have £100K which we didn’t have before. This has allowed us to attract other monies and, much more importantly, it has empowered local traders. They now believe that by working together they may actually have some impact on events. Few are Canute-like hoping to push back the tide. Many are already deep in nearly over their heads. When the tide is against you, it’s swim or drown. Many Bedminster businesses will go under in the next few years, our determination is that by acting together we can create a new sort of high street where some businesses will prosper. That’s why we’ve gone for a Business Improvement District as a self-help response. We’ll know by April if we’ve succeeded or not.

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