Upate: Ipswich awarded �100,000 of ‘Portas Plus’ cash

MINISTERS today unveiled a new �10million High Street Innovation Fund to help bring empty shops back into use – with Ipswich among the local authority areas set to benefit.

The fund was announced as part of the Government’s initial response to last December’s report by retail guru Mary Portas on ways to revitalise of Britain’s recession-hit high streets,

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said today that the Government was accepting “virtuall all” of Ms Portas’s 28 recommendations, and was going further with a raft of schemes including the High Street Innovation Fund, a National Markets Day and a �500,000 fund for Business Improvement Districts to help town centres access loans.

Ipswich is to receive �100,000 from the innovation fund, together with three other areas in the East of Engalnd – Uttlesford, Thurrock, Stevenage and Luton.

The package of measures is in addition to a further round of “Portas Pilots”, in addition to 12 launched last month. Applications for the next round close today, with many market towns across East Anglia among those submitting bids.

Among the recommendations set out by Ms Portas were planning changes to aid town centres, free parking and annual market days, accompanied by a warning that high streets could “disappear forever” without urgent action.

Mr Shapps said: “Today I’m accepting virtually all of the recommendations from Mary Portas’s review but I’m also going that one step further, offering a ‘Portas Plus’ deal with a range of measures designed to help local people turn their high streets into the beating hearts of their communities once again.

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“Mary Portas’s review made crystal clear the stark challenge our high streets face. With internet shopping and out-of-town centres here to stay, they must offer something new if they are to entice visitors back.

“Her report has provided the catalyst for change that many towns have been craving. I now want to see people coming together to form their own town teams and turning their creative ideas into reality to ensure their high streets thrive long into the future.”

Mr Shapps said he supported Ms Portas’s recommendation for town teams of key local players set up to drive changes. They would be encouraged to consider later opening hours to stimulate “a vibrant evening economy” and to make better use of public spaces.

He also announced a commitment to helping councils revoke “outdated” rules hindering new markets and businesses, reform current planning rules to allow the conversion of space above shops to two flats rather than one and consult on abolishing centrally-set minimum parking charges to give councils the flexibility to levy lower parking penalty notices.

He also announced steps to ensure greater transparency on parking charges to introduce competition between town centres.

Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Business Improvement District delivery company Ipswich Central, who was involved in the review, welcomed the Government’s focus on town centres but believed it could have gone further in some areas.

“Here in Ipswich we are not in a critical state, as some others are, as we are at an advanced stage of management with our BID,” said Mr Clement.

“It’s great news that a revolving loan fund will be established to help fund new BIDs as well as supporting mature BIDs, like ourselves, into ‘Super BIDs’ that can deliver a high level visionary and strategic role. I believe that to revitalise town centres and bring vacant properties back into use, we need to not solely focus on retail users, but also other options such as cafes with the support of our local authority.

“Whilst the report addresses Market Days, I think these are a good idea but somewhere like our town would benefit from these 365 days a year.

“I also feel that the response on parking isn’t strong enough, although I accept that this is a difficult issue. Whilst the Government have suggested reducing fixed penalty charges I believe what is really key is the need for a reduction in parking costs.

“Wouldn’t it be great if parking could be �1 – we have proved that this brings visitors into our town.”

Ms Portas said: “When I published my review I was clear that this was an action plan for our high streets, not a document to gather dust on Whitehall shelves.

“I’ve been thrilled by the response of people, town teams and communities up and down the country who have seized this opportunity to come together and form their own ideas.

“I’m pleased that the response from Grant Shapps today is designed to build on this momentum and give local people the tools they need to turn their creative ideas into reality, along with extra money to bring empty shops back into use.

“Naturally I would have liked greater central intervention in critical areas such as change of use, parking, business rates and the sign off of new out of town developments and I will continue to fight for these, but I do believe that today marks the first day of a fresh new approach, putting our high streets firmly back on the public and national agenda.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said the Government’s response included “positive steps” but “doesn’t live up to her bigger ambition to revitalise our high streets”.

BRC director of business Tom Ironside said: “We’re waiting for the Government to share the full detail of its response since there is a difference between accepting recommendations and putting them into action.

“We were pleased with many of Mary Portas’s findings, which set out a bold vision for the future of the high street, but we’re concerned the Government hasn’t yet matched her level of ambition with its response.

“Our high streets are at the heart of our towns and cities and need championing. Retailers are doing their best to boost local high streets where they’re able to, working with local authorities and other businesses, but an example needs to be set by central Government.

“This was an opportunity to revitalise our town centres for the 21st century but is in danger of becoming just another report on a dusty shelf.”

The Local Government Association’s Economy and Transport Board chairman, Peter Box, said: “It is pleasing that the Government response to Mary Portas will accept many of the views raised by town halls, including greater involvement from local businesses and a funding boost for areas with high numbers of empty shops.

“We now need a sustained focus on improving high streets in the years to come, particularly in light of figures from the OECD which show that more and more shoppers are using the internet instead.

“High streets across the UK have suffered a cardiac arrest and councils are keen to work alongside Government to deliver the necessary life support.”