Sunday, 3 March 2013

Sunday Times: Queen of Shops ‘all pomp and flop’

IN ITS heyday in the mid- 1800s, Margate would lure crowds of Victorians to stroll its shop-lined streets and bathe in the waters off the Kent coastal town.
Today, Margate's efforts to regenerate its now depressed high street with a £100,000 government grant and the help of Mary Portas, the self-styled Queen of Shops, have descended into a bitter war of words. 
In May last year Margate beat off stiff competition to become one of 12 towns to win part of £1.1m, the first wave of funding set aside by the government to help ailing high streets. It was much needed. The high street, littered with empty shops, had a 36.1% vacancy rate and even the Non-Stop Pound Shop store had moved out. 
The involvement of Portas, the initiative's figurehead, was an added boost, as was the arrival of a television crew to film her offering advice to grateful shop owners. 
However, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act, just £111.47 of the £100,000 had been spent by December 2012 — on a combination of stationery and Land Registry searches. The quartet who led the original Town Team grant application have resigned, condemning what they describe as Portas's "gimmicks" and "silly pomp and ceremony" for leaving the high street in a worse state than when she arrived six months ago. Portas has dismissed the claims as "ridiculous". 
Among the disgruntled locals is Robin Vaughan-Lyons, the leader of the original bid, who was last week preparing to close one of his charity shops in the high street. 
"It has all been a huge waste of time," he said. "It is all gimmicks and no substance, there is nothing real that has been done, not for local people who want to shop in their local shops." 
Vaughan-Lyons claims Portas focused her energies on Margate's old town and seafront which have been far less ravaged by years of decline than the high street. He also believes her appearance at an empty branch of the now defunct Woolworths owed much to securing footage for her TV series. 
Other traders, such as Terry Silk, the owner of Yama's restaurant, are unimpressed by the notion advocated by Portas that initiatives such as art displays in abandoned shop fronts will arrest the decline. 
"Honestly, nothing has changed, nothing at all. What we have been hoping for is to get proper lighting on the street, and that's still not done, we wanted the shops painted, everything cleaned up, the litter," he said. "To be honest business is worse than ever." 
Margate shop owner Robin Vaughan-Lyons, with Roxanne Tesla (Julian Andrews)  
Another shopkeeper, who asked not to be named, described the rancour between Portas's critics and supporters as like "world war three". She added: "It's ridiculous — all that pomp and ceremony of the launch — and nothing actually changing." 
Those criticisms are dismissed by the council and the new Town Team who say half a dozen projects — ranging from community dance studios to steak houses — are planned for this spring. 
Richard Ash, who took over as chairman of the new Town Team in October, defended the decision to spend so little of the £100,000 fund and insisted that Portas's involvement had benefited the town. 
"Our position is to target where the money will be spent in a proper manner rather than rushing. I'm as proud as a peacock we haven't spent our money because it means we have it to use it where we want to use it," he said. "She [Portas] hasn't done it 100% right, I agree, but she has tried to promote Margate and has brought a lot of publicity." 
Margate is not alone in demonstrating a reluctance to spend its regeneration grant. According to freedom of information responses revealed by Paul Turner-Mitchell, a retail expert, from the 12 towns who secured funds, just £161,773 — or 14.5% — of the £1.11m handed out has been spent. Margate is the lowest (0.1%) but Bedford (4.6%) and Croydon (4.9%) have also spent less than 5%.
The crisis in the high street shows no sign of abating. According to a study of 500 UK town centres by the Local Data Company, there were 7,337 store closures in 2012 against 5,558 openings. 
Portas is unbowed by the criticism and insists part of her programme was filmed in Margate's old town to show what the high street could become. 
She said: "This is not a make-over, this is going to take years to change. To be judged after a month's work advising a community is just quite ridiculous. This is not about TV programming, this is about documenting something that is real and to suggest that this is all PR spin is just wrong. 
"There are people who comment, there are people who point and there are people who roll their sleeves up. In rolling my sleeves up, I come [in] for a knocking and I just have to take it but I can sleep at night. I am doing what I believe in."

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