Charles Graham - Reviving our urban centres

THE only other time I mentioned Queen of Shops Mary Portas on this page, I was having a go at her for suggesting that female members of the Cabinet should make themselves sexier.

Now, thankfully, she is back in the spotlight for talking about something she does have a clue about: the retail scene.

She has kick-started, rather belatedly, a campaign to reclaim the British high street from its arch-enemies: the out-of-town shopping centre and supermarket giant.

Politicians of various hues have been quick to back her call despite these soul-less concrete sprawls still springing up all over the place to this day.

You only need to look around parts of Wigan town centre to see how many shops have closed. Yes, it is doing better than many, but there are plenty of gaps in the teeth and the likes of the local superstores and Robin Park won’t have helped.

I like Portas’s ideas for cutting rates and giving investors extra incentives to come into town centres. So too the notion of having the “complete package” - including leisure facilities and restaurants - in our urban hearts just as they do in many retail parks.

Of course there is only so much money shoppers have to spend, so one place’s gain is another’s loss. One wonders how folk would like a tumble-weed, near-empty Robin Park on their doorstep.

But two issues Portas did not mention were parking and accessibility. The driving forces behind out-of-town centres springing up in the first place were shoppers fed up of having to pay to leave their cars on a patch of asphalt and the traffic snarl-ups they often encountered before even leaving their vehicles. The pedestrianisation of many town centres, including Wigan’s, haven’t helped this latter problem one bit.

And so it will be interesting to see if these proposals do find support in deeds as well as words and, if they do, what the upshot will be for the British retail scene.