Cynics have long worried that the “Mary Portas Review” of the high street, commissioned by the government, was largely a PR exercise. I pointed out last autumn that there were concerns that the review’s recommendations were just a drop in the ocean compared to the wider global trends forcing the closure of countless retail chains.
And now it has emerged that eight months after £1.1million was awarded to the first wave of Portas Pilots – to “kick start a renaissance” in town centres -only 12 per cent of the money has been spent.
The figure emerged from an Foi request by Paul Turner Mitchell, a retail commentator and fashion boutique owner. This suggests that only £136,000 has been spent so far with some pilots having spent none of the funding allocated.
Some of this has gone towards DCLG meetings, project co-ordinator salaries, charges for travel and backdated claims for the original bids, the breakdown suggests.
Dartford Council, for example, spent £5,983 on local newspaper adverts, £1,317 on surveys, £1,610 on a Peppa Pig costume and £317.46 on items from Waitrose.
A Dartford spokeswoman said adverts in local newspapers were used to promote the launch of Sunday trading in the town, a six-month Sunday market pilot, and a bursary scheme for businesses hoping to set up in the market. Peppa Pig was hired as a ‘proven’ way to attract families to the area, she added.
Other examples include Wolverhampton Council spending £989 on postage, Bedminster Council spending £15,510 on consultants including a backdated £2,000 for the cost of their application and Stockton-on-Tees Council spending £2,549 on time spent by business representatives on town team activities, £1,000 on rail and travel costs and £35 on refreshments for a ministerial visit to the town team.
Stockport Council has yet to spend any of the £100,000 they were awarded last May. Margate has spent just £111.47 out of their award of £100,000.
Simon Danczuk, a Labour MP, complained that councils were failing to live up to the spirit of the scheme.
“These were supposed to be about delivering a transformational vision. There’s little evidence of that and it’s disappointing that the first thing some councils have done is use the money to pay for the cost of their application,” he said.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: ‘The Government has given the Portas Pilots a share of £2.4million to spend as and when they see fit to best improve their high streets and encourage residents to shop locally.”
He added: “The main aim of this scheme has been to harness the energy and enthusiasm of local people to breathe new life into the town centres and make them the hearts of their communities once again.”