Monday, 6 May 2013

Mary Portas show lobbied government officials

The Guardian's Randeep Ramesh has published an article showing what we in the original bid team had suspected all along; That there was a closeness between Mary Portas' TV production company and the government at the highest level. This explains so much of what has happened to me and my colleagues over the last 12 months. I need to let this sink in. But obviously when we went to the government for help in dealing with Optomen TV, well, it was a hotline to the TV company.

The PR machine for Channel 4 and Optomen TV has already started with the trailers running for the show. The series starts tomorrow with Roman Road, Margate on the 14th and Lisekard on the 21st.

TV company put forward suggestions for towns to be selected as pilots

Film-makers working with the celebrity shopping guru Mary Portas on her reality TV show lobbied government officials to direct taxpayer funds to high streets because they would be popular with television audiences, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The funding for the so-called "Portas pilots" was part of a high-profile government policy to renew town centres. Portas produced a 28-point plan on how to revive moribund town centres for David Cameron in December 2011. Less than six months later, from almost 400 entries, more than two dozen towns – the Portas pilots – were picked to receive £100,000 of state support and advice each. On Tuesday Portas fronts the first of three hour-long programmes in a series on Channel 4, Mary: Queen of the High Street, focusing on three winning bids.
The Guardian has established that the production company hired by Channel 4 and Portas's staff suggested some locations for winning bids. In one example, the production crew advocated taxpayers' cash for a deprived part of London because "social history is currently really popular on television".
The government's high-profile policy was handed to the local government minister, Grant Shapps, early last year. In February he wrote to the retail expert saying there would have to be "clear blue water between the selection of the pilots and the television show. This will be best achieved by me selecting the pilots, with [Portas's] Yellow Door and [TV production company] Optomen having no involvement."
The Portas team proposed a list of favoured choices. Government emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that on 13 April last year a Portas agency director emailed Shapps's private secretary to say: "We already have our proposed 12 [Portas pilots]." Four days later, the same director emailed David Morris, the civil servant in charge of the pilots, to say: "We have now done some early reviewing of the entries with Mary and have come to an early shortlist from our end", adding a list of 13 towns.
Morris responded 24 hours later to warn the Portas agency that "we need to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest between pilot selection and the TV show – which are separate projects". When the first list of 12 Portas pilots was announced by the government from 371 entries on May 24 last year, it included three of Yellow Door's favoured high streets: Croydon, Market Rasen and Stockport.
A spokesperson for Portas denied that Portas had sought to influence the government's selection process. Channel 4 and Optomen also strongly deny any attempt to influence the process.
One of the high streets selected for filming, Roman Road in East London, did not make the initial top dozen pilots. In an email, Optomen explained to Morris that Channel 4 "loved" the idea of renovating an East End market: "Social history is currently really popular on television and Roman Road would be the perfect road to bring back to its former glory." The second tranche of pilots offered another opportunity for it to receive funding. On May 28 London mayor Boris Johnson announced a £300,000 fund for three more pilots.
Forty-eight hours later, Optomen wrote to Morris to ask: "Do you know when Boris is planning to announce his towns and whether there will be another call for submissions? Will this be going through your office or his? Roman Rd is on top of our list and we're still hopeful that all our towns are part of the government selected towns, hence the question."
Morris replied a week later after a meeting with the Greater London Authority, who he said "are aiming to work to the same timetable as us – but they will be making the selections. I have told them you are interested in Roman Road! … Are Ch4 interested in any of the others?" There is no suggestion that the mayor was influenced by Portas or the TV project.
Two months later, the government announced that among the threesuccessful Portas pilots "selected by the mayor" and receiving "funding from the Greater London Authority" was one in Tower Hamlets that included Roman Road. The first Portas hour-long reality show centres on the renewal of the east London market. When contacted, the mayor's office said it was only "part-funding" the Tower Hamlets pilot with local council cash used to update Roman Road.There were also an impression within government that TV pilots were getting more attention than those high streets not featured by Channel 4. In early June civil servants emailed to ask if Portas' agency "could clarify … what additional support those who agree to filming will get". One government official told Yellow Door: "I am aware of two pilot areas where they have been told – one by your office and one by Optomen that they would only get Mary's time if they signed up for the TV series."
In Margate, which features in the second episode of the Channel 4 series, the original bid-winning team resigned and the town split over the pilots, with some claiming Portas had threatened to withdraw cash unless the cameras were let in. A spokesperson for Mary Portas said this was "well documented".
A month later, on the eve of the announcement of the second round of 15 Portas pilots, the celebrity told the government she would not be "personally involved" in supporting the winners – in effect withdrawing from the scheme.Half the second round pilots have yet to spend any of the £1.5m allocated to them.
Labour claims the emails show the government was more interested in "publicity than public policy". Roberta Blackman-Woods, the shadow local government minister, said: "The government promised their Portas pilots scheme would lead the way for proper regeneration on the high street. Now it appears the real intention of this competition was to mask the government's abject failure to support businesses at the heart of our communities."
A spokesperson for Mary Portas said: "Any suggestion that Mary was involved in influencing the government's selection of Portas pilot towns is categorically untrue.
"Early correspondence between Yellow Door and the government simply reflected a former employee's enthusiastic response to the hundreds of inspirational video pilot applications. The government clarified protocol and there was no influence by Yellowdoor on the selection of the Portas pilot towns whatsoever.
"Mary's work preparing the Portas review for the government, and her subsequent and ongoing advice, is unpaid. In July last year Mary let the government know that she was stepping back from personal involvement in the second round of Portas pilot towns. This in no way diminishes from her commitment to the high street campaign."
Channel 4 said: "The final decision on selecting Portas pilot towns always rested with the government and at no point did Channel 4 make any attempt to influence that decision or government policy. We strongly dispute that anything was constructed. We are aware of a number of complaints – many of which are in the public domain – and the programme fairly and accurately portrays events as they happened during filming."
A spokesperson for Optomen said: "[We] had no influence over or involvement in the selection of the Portas pilot towns, which was solely a decision for the government. The programme tells the story of what occurred when Mary went to work with three towns that applied to be Portas pilots. More of Mary's time would inevitably be spent in the towns featured in the series. No sweeteners or financial inducements were offered or made by Optomen to the towns to encourage their participation in the programme. Great care has been taken to ensure that the programme is a fair and honest representation of Mary's work in these towns."
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: "We have always been completely clear that the 27 Portas pilots were selected for the leadership, commitment and innovation shown in their application, that Mary Portas had absolutely no role in choosing the towns, and that their status as Portas pilots was in no way dependent on their participation in any show."


  1. What's wrong with the TV company suggesting some towns?

    Margate was already chosen so wasn't affected anyway.

    Not much of a scandal. But the issue is Portas' behaviour and you and your team being bounced off by Painter etc which seems linked to councillor manipulation as so often.

    And of course barely any of the money being spent. Presumably the town is still a mess and will be seen as such?

  2. The TV Company are not supposed to choose where tax payers money is spent. The bids should be chosen because of the merit of the bids. The people volunteering their time to improve their High St shouldn't be forced to participate in a TV show. You're right that Margate was already chosen by the government, so that's good for the bid.

    Who said we were 'bounced off' by Mr Painter? Not me. I resigned because there was a gathering of people with Portas on August 20th and I was discussed in public.

    Yes, barely any money has been spent. So what's the story in the show of Oct 20th with the inland pier and relaunch?

  3. No doubt the show will be a Mary Portas-fest and as you'd expect long on being an entertaining show but short on regeneration. Much as with The Apprentice and again have the effect of showing the place a mess.

    Never heard of an inland pier which sounds nonsense.

    For the money not to be spent after a year is a disgrace.

  4. As a TV producer myself (nothing to do with Optomen or Portas), the one word of advice I would give anyone is 'never get involved with a TV show'. The show is everything, the participants merely meat-puppets. They will be manipulated and bullied and sacrificed for the sake of a good story, end of. I know, that's what I do for a living.

    So I'm not surprised that the Portas Towns were 'picked' by Optomen, in fact as soon as I heard a TV show was involved it was obvious. Poor old Margate, suckered again.

  5. An inland pier........only in Thanet

  6. I really don't understand why almost none of the money has been spent. This doesn't make any sense. Even sprucing up the shops and putting some plants out would have been better than nothing. Is the money now lost to Margate?