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11 Jul
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Retail Development: Has the Portas High Street been Pickled?

Pesky Pickles is at it again. In the same month as Mary Portas published her ‘think piece’ following the two year anniversary of The Portas Review, Ol’ Eric approved an out of town Retail Park in South Northamptonshire.

So, does this mean that the Government aren’t committed to their town centre first policy directive? Is the High Street dead in the eyes of national retailers? Or, does it mean that Local Authorities have to do more to encourage investment into the town centre?

NJL take a look at the conflict in pressures and what we think planning should be doing to encourage a recovering retail market.

So What’s Going on?

 It is our experience, in representing clients in both out of centre and town centre schemes, that there is development potential and interest in both sectors.

What we are finding is that the out of centre retailers are responding to occupier demand in the short term, whilst the town centre developers are looking for ways to promote schemes to attract retailers over the medium to longer term.

The bottom line is that if the retailers thought that there was a market for being located in the town centre, they would. Ultimately, the location of retailers is solely dictated by consumers. As Mary Portas highlighted:

“the real driver for these shifts are consumers. They seem to be adapting to their new choices of Out of Town, Multiple Retailer, the 24 hour economy, the Pop Up everything”,

There is a commonly held view that out of town retail parks are successful because they are ‘convenient’. Yet 80%+ of us live within 5 miles of our High Streets and 38% of us visit them almost daily according to a report by Deloitte. So if the ‘convenience’ argument is somewhat of a red herring, what is the cause behind stubbornly high vacancy rates in town centres and why are occupiers still attracted to being located at Retail Parks?

In my view, each location has a role to play in customers shopping patterns, as consumers become more savvy and the impact of internet shopping is truly realised.

However, despite the market forces, planning certainly has a role to play.

So What Role Does Planning Play? 

In the first instance we would suggest that once an application for major out of town retail floorspace is submitted and there is a genuine commitment to build it, for the most part, the application of the Council’s town centre first policy is surmountable; the fault has already occurred.

In order to promote the town centre, the process should have started a long time before this point. In submitting a planning application, it demonstrates that the occupier wants to be situated in that location. At the risk of being flippant, the key to promoting the town centre starts at the beginning.

It is no use just having a town centre first policy and drawing a line around the primary shopping area. The Local Authority must have a strategic plan and set out its vision for regenerating the town centre within their Local Plan. The Local Authority has a responsibility to promote and deliver physical regeneration, public realm improvements, marketing and a responsive planning system that encourages activity.

The Local Authority also needs to engage with landlords, developers and occupiers to work with them to ensure vacancy rates are kept in check. One of the ways to achieve this is to encourage pop up and starter businesses to locate in vacant units on short term leases.   

The most successful High Streets, the ones that survived the economic downturn, are the ones that had a strong identity and provided more than just a row of retail units. The thriving centres include a mixture of uses, shops, cafes, bars, restaurants independent and niche retailers. All of this set against a strong public realm and enjoyable environment.  It means that people visit for longer and for more of an experience.

As Mary Portas’s think piece showed, it is not all doom and gloom. There are many examples of centres that have flourished and despite the collapse of several big names (HMV, Woolworths) only 20% of this space remains vacant (link), with a large amount of this space occupied by independents.

Through incentives such as the changes to the Permitted Development Order, the High Street is going through a period of transition or as Mary Portas would say “re-imagining”. In my view, with the right leadership and shopping environment, it is a High Street that cannot be threatened by out of town retail development and should be able to coexist.

Ultimately, make the town centre a desirable place to be located and the retailers will flock. In the butchered words of Kevin Costner “if you build it, they will come”.

How Can NJL Help?

NJL Consulting has a successful track record of delivering town centre regeneration schemes in close partnership with the Local Authority and the developer. We, therefore, know what it takes to promote a town centre and encourage growth in the retail sector.

If you would like expert advice on your retail scheme, please do not hesitate to contact the retail team and


Images used courtesy of and via Wikipedia.

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