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Article written by Ivan Tennant for th Estates Gazette magazine.

Portas adopts an entrepreneurial, can-do attitude. She offers leadership. This is desperately needed if high streets are to acquire fresh strategic direction. High streets are not failing; in many ways they are the future, although the high street may shatter into a number of alternative ‘brands.’ We may come to know them as ‘urban villages,’ ‘areas of intensity’ or they may adopt local names such as ‘the lanes’ or ‘the creative quarter.’  These brands work by reinventing themselves with people in mind.

Portas demands that high streets should behave more like businesses; but her business is one that takes its social responsibilities as seriously as its core commercial purpose. The model she proposes is a ‘hybrid’ that recognises the ‘best deal’ for the consumer captures both a good bargain, and social value. This notion of hybridity needs to be at the heart of high street revival strategies.

Rebranding reflects a positioning strategy designed to exploit emerging opportunities and new consumer tastes. Not all the shifts in high streets’ economic landscape undermines them: climate change will force more people out of their cars and encouraging more sustainable forms of behaviour. Use of the city centre is more sustainable if these areas are within walking or cycling distance of people’s homes. Edward Glaeser has written convincingly that reducing carbon omissions relies on building at greater density in the urban core. For retail areas in these locations, this offers a new life line.

 Equally persuasive is the digital revolution; while Portas sites the internet as a major factor in undermining the viability of the high street, her text is littered with ways digital technology can foster growth. The symbiotic relationship between the high street and creative industries is one. The urban woodwork in East London is riddled with highly digitised micro creative businesses; like ants protecting a tree, they are locked in a symbiotic embrace with the streets which provides them with food and resources.  Robust planning policy will deliver the carefully husbandry needed to cultivate these mutually supporting relationships, and Portas is right to acknowledge its role.

All forests need big animals, and supermarkets are a key part of the eco system. The phenomenon of local supermarket brands is a vote of confidence in the high street. Bethnal Green Road, a street I know well, supports a large supermarket, a local Tesco, a thriving market and a host of independent shops. This is a mutually supporting network of businesses supported by a diverse, mixed income community. I marvel at the survival of the local butcher; I am convinced it is there for two reasons. Firstly because the street market around it creates a fun street scene that encourages people to pop into different stalls and shops in their search for quality and bargains and, secondly, because the supermarket works as a major pull factor.

Portas has much to say about the ‘cultural’ function of high streets. Indy Johar of strategy & design practice 00 sees high streets being ‘relieved of their conspicuous consumer responsibilities’ as a potential boon. To survive, they need to look at more imaginative and diverse ways they can serve their natural catchment areas. This may lead to becoming a digital hub, a centre of social enterprise, or providing street markets and slow food. But it is the very act of returning to ‘first principles’ in this way that high streets can pick up a thread that may lead them back to both relevance and vitality.   

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