Monday, November 13, 2017

News: Mixed bag in Rotherham post Portas

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It is five years since Rotherham town centre was named as a Portas Pilot by the Government. Rothbiz editor Tom Austen takes a look at the changes on the High Street.

In 2012, Rotherham Council and its partners secured £100,000 from the Government. A pot of £350,000 was compiled to test the "Town Team" approach and pilot ideas and recommendations set out in the Mary Portas Review. At its heart was the extension of the grants scheme to support shops in a bid to retain and attract independent traders, boosting the vitality of the town centre by offering something different.

British Land, the then owner of the nearby Parkgate Shopping, made a £130,000 contribution (linked to securing planning permission for Frankie & Benny's) and this was followed up with £268,000 awarded as part of the Government's High Street Renewal Award.The business vitality scheme aimed at encouraging new independent retailers to open up outlets in Rotherham town centre has been running since 2008. The scheme has provided discretionary financial assistance in the form of rental contributions, business planning, business advice, customer service training, and contributions to shop front grants, fit out costs and street furniture.

Funding was also set aside to support existing town centre retailers to help them undertake significant business development projects.

Coupled with the capital investment to support Chris Hamby and his heritage-led regeneration of the High Street, you have to say that the effort to create an offer that was distinct, with niche independent retailers, has been largely successful.

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The Maker's Emporium (pictured, below), which was hailed by Mary Portas on a return visit to the town in 2014, is absolutely full. 3,000 sq ft of retail space on the High Street is run by apprentices and showcases handmade products by local crafters, designers and artists. It echoes one of Portas' recommendations to Government around making it easier for people to become traders.

Other examples include the expansion of the Whistle Stop Sweet Shop to include a new temperance bar, and the renovation of Stems florists. La Bella Lingerie is still going strong having initially set up in the short term, backed by the Council's Pop-up Shop concept.

Examples of investment from current traders saw Andrew's Butcher's and Craft Corner and Bears' Den move into new premises from Riverside Precinct. Local greengrocer John Norris also took on a new site. The excellent Miele Delicatessen was also awarded funding for their street furniture.

Indeed, Rotherham town centre came out on top at the 2015 Great British High Streets Awards, a Government-backed competition to find and celebrate the nation's best high streets. It was due to its "incredible support for start-up businesses and local retailers" and for the success of the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI).

In contrast, there has been a loss of some of the town's independents. Baby Blossom Boutique, which began as a pop up shop, has moved online but still sells at fairs and events. Props Skate Store, Patchwork Pig and Sophisticakes are also sadly missed.

It's the national retailers that make the headlines though and Rotherham's tale is similar to High Streets up and down the country. 2017 has been particularly bad with names such as New Look and Thorntons leaving the town centre and the biggest national name remaining, Primark, is due to leave soon.

The ins and outs over the last five years has meant that the vacancy rate in Rotherham town centre has gone from 25% down to 14% and back up to over 25%. A similar improvement, and then decline, has been seen in the footfall figures.

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The review included 27 recommendations and Rothbiz has picked out some of them here. In relation to Rotherham, business rates, parking and absent landlords are the same issues affecting the town centre, as they were five years ago.

With no evaluation of the 27 Portas Pilots, I'll leave it for the "Queen of Shops" to conclude, five years later, on how the Government responded to her review. Portas (pictured visiting Rotherham in 2011), told BBC Radio 4: "What I hoped with the Portas Review was to highlight to Government what the real issues were, put in some important policies to move forward. When they [the coalition Government] did the pilots it was a hastily created policy. It was a nice, shiny, possibly weighted, PR campaign and I thought it was going to kickstart much more. But it didn't.

"What it was meant to do, what it should have done, was to kickstart the impetus and then Government be behind it with real policy change, and it didn't happen.

"The towns did their bit, I'm not sure the Government did theirs."

Images: JLL / RiDO / Maker's Emporium

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