How the Portas Towns are doing a decade on from £1.2million scheme

From faded seaside spot turned hipsters’ paradise to a northern resort now a ‘des-res’…. what happened a decade after shopping guru Mary Portas handed £100,000 to 12 towns to ‘kick-start a renaissance’?

  • Shopping guru  and TV personality Mary Portas teamed up with Government in 2011 to launch Portas Review
  • Scheme aimed to buck downward trend of UK high streets and chose 12 towns to receive £1.2million funding
  • But a report by BBC in 2017 found nearly 1,000 shops had been lost in the 12 towns in the following five years
  • Now, a decade on from launch of the scheme, MailOnline is taking a look at how the towns are faring in 2021
  • While it is good news for the likes of Margate and Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, it’s bad news for places like Croydon 

It was billed as a groundbreaking new scheme aiming to ‘kick-start a renaissance’ of the Great British high street. 

Twelve English towns were chosen to buck the spiraling trend of high street decline and pave the way of the future of town centres under the 2011 Portas Review.

Led by shopping guru and television personality Mary Portas, the report recommended an end to swathes of red tape, a push to free parking for shoppers and a cultural rethink of town centres to be business-led.

The twelve towns meanwhile were each given £100,000 under the Portas Pilot to launch new and innovative ways to regenerate their town centres for the internet age. 

But a year later and questions began to be raised about the effectiveness of the project. In 2013, the retail expert was forced to deny the Portas Review was a giant exercise in self-publicity, telling MPs: ‘Sometimes I wish I hadn’t put my name on it as I have taken a huge bashing for work I have done for nothing, and I think that has been completely unfair.’ 

Six years after the project, data published by the BBC, revealed how almost 1,000 shops had closed across the twelve towns since 2011. Portas herself even admitted defeat saying: ‘I hoped it might kick-start something – but it didn’t’.   

Larger shopping areas included in the Portas Pilot, such as Wolverhampton, Stockport and Croydon, all of which sit on the outskirts of much bigger cities, have suffered as a result of the nationwide exodus of big name brands from high streets and the move towards large regional hubs.

But some of the smaller towns picked in the Portas Pilot have not just survived but thrived in the last 10 years – despite also having to weather the impact of Covid on high streets and town centres.

The once down-on-its-luck seaside town of Margate, Kent, is now a bustling community of upmarket coffee shops and independent retailers, while Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, is now so popular for second home hunters and wealthy retirees it is semi-jokingly referred to as the Cornwall of the North.

However while locals in the Portas towns say that remnants of the scheme can still be seen today, they have credited much larger investments and the work of local leaders and business owners with their success.

Here MailOnline takes a look at the twelve Ports towns ten years on and what is planned for their futures:

Led by shopping guru and television personality Mary Portas (pictured), the report recommended an end to swathes of red tape, a push to free parking for shoppers and a cultural rethink of town centres to be business-led

Margate

Sea, sand and a short train journey from London has always been the selling point of the Kent coastal town of Margate. Located 70 miles from London, on the eastern tip of southern England, it has been a popular holiday hotspot since as far back as the 17th Century.

Like so many of England’s great seaside towns, it was chucked aside, left unloved and neglected, in favour of more exoctic locations following the development of commercial aviation.

But Margate has enjoyed somewhat of a cultural renaissance in recent years – so much so even the New York Times labelled it ‘Shoreditch-by-Sea’ in a 2016 review of the town.

Margate is now a hotspot for vintage clothes shops, boutiques, independent coffee houses and trendy restaurants, while the opening of the Turner Contemporary art museum in 2011 has cemented its place as a hipsters’ paradise.

Not only that, but the property market is currently booming. Margate is now one of the top destinations for London-based house hunters looking to switch busy city life for the seaside.

It even topped the traditional hipster hotspot of Brighton in a 2021 report by The Property Market Index of best coastal towns to purchase a property. 

Located 70 miles from London, on the eastern tip of southern England, Margate has been a popular holiday hotspot since as far back as the 17th Century

And it could soon get even better for Margate, which earlier this year was awarded £22 million in Government funding, which will be used in various improvements such as new arts spaces and improvements to the beach.

However traders in the town insist it wasn’t Mary Portas who put the Kent seaside back town on the map.

Dan Thomas, an expert in the High Street and empty shops and author of Pop-up Business for Dummies was involved in the initial bidding to get the funding for the Portas Project, which he says, came from some community activists.

Dan told MailOnline: ‘She swept in and tried to do some dramatic stuff for telly that was nothing to do with anything that was really happening here.

‘Me and other community activists actually started the process but got elbowed out the way after the Portas Project.

Howard Watson, 60, who has owned Comics & Sci-Fi World 15 years agreed the Turner Gallery had been the main driver of change

‘Some of the money went into some stalls but none of them worked so I do wonder where did the money go?

‘But prior to her arrival, £20million was pumped into the old town to make it look good before the gallery Turner Contemporary opened and the rest was a really gradual process with lots of gentle interventions of people starting a street market, starting their own events and those are really important because those are the things that really bring the place to life and they’re still going but that obviously doesn’t look good on telly.’

Howard Watson, 60, who has owned Comics & Sci-Fi World 15 years agreed the Turner Gallery had been the main driver of change. 

He said: ‘There’s no comparison to 10 years ago, but this summer I’ve had the busiest summer I’ve ever had and that was straight out of lockdown. The figures between now and 10 years ago are just incomparable, so much better now. 

‘The gallery though, that has sown the seed of being a far more lucrative area and furnished an appeal for the arts.’

But councillor Reece Pugh, Deputy Leader of Thanet Council and Cabinet Member for Economic Development, praised the report as giving a much needed ‘boost’ to the ailing high street.

He said: ‘I think that year on year since the review the town is going from strength to strength.

‘In the past ten years we have seen a boost in the number of independent shops, the report boosted local people’s confidence in the future of the high street and their entrepreneurship’

‘The report helped to put a spotlight on Margate and the plight of other seaside towns that were struggling particularly with the decline over recent years.’

The tourist Information office and Turner Contemporary Building overlooking the harbor. The Turner Contemporary gallery has been described as one of the key reasons for the town’s improvement in the last 10 years

Meanwhile, Newcomer Abigail Carlson, 27, an artist, moved here just before the first lockdown from London as she could no longer afford London rent and loves being by the seaside.

‘I do think a lot more young people are doing the same in their droves. 

‘There’s so much going on here now and you can rent £300 pounds on and still be close to such a good choice of amazing shops and bars, which now I can actually afford to go to,’ she said.

Bedford

Situated along the Great River Ouse, the market town of Bedford in Bedfordshire has long been regarded as one of the nicest places to live in England. 

With plenty of historic buildings, a swathe of top schools and impressive transport links to London, the upmarket town regularly features in the Sunday Times’ Best Places to Live guide – most recently in 2019.

But Bedford is not without its issues, particularly when it comes to the town centre. Since the Portas review in 2011 footfall has largely declined – in line with the national picture.

Though Bedford bucked the trend and increased town centre footfall between 2014 and 2017, figures show that it fell by nearly three quarters of a million in 2018 compared with 14.7million in 2017. 

Situated along the Great River Ouse, the market town of Bedford in Bedfordshire has long been regarded as one of the nicest places to live in England

Marks and Spencer, British Home Stores and River Island have all left in recent years. The development of the A1 retail park in Biggleswade and Bedford Interchange, along with a more comprehensive shopping experience in larger areas such as Milton Keynes and Cambridge has further squeezed Bedford’s town centre.

There have been some improvements however, with the 2017 riverside development bringing an upmarket mixed development to the town centre. And despite other big name retailers leaving, B&M opened a new store in the high street in December.

However perhaps the most exciting news is that Bedford recently won £22million in funding to regenerate the town’s Station Quarter, Midland Road and St. Paul’s Square. 

Local leaders say they hope the plans will ‘enhance the experience for both shoppers and visitors, increasing the vibrancy of the centre of Bedford and promoting the town as a place to meet friends and family and have fun’.

Croydon 

Croydon prides itself as one of the largest commercial districts in Greater London and given its close proximity and impressive transport links to the capital, it might reasonably expected to be one of the most vibrant and successful.

But Croydon residents say the area has been in steep decline in the last 30 years. Its initial decline stems as far back as the 1940s, when Croydon hosted London’s primary airport, and its centre was devastated by German bombing raids.

Croydon Airport was then superseded by Heathrow Airport, leading to the airport’s closure in 1959. Despite this, Croydon boomed as a business centre in the 1960s and in 1969 welcomed the Whitgift Shopping Centre – which still stands today.

Despite the development of huge new housing blocks around Croydon, concern has remained over its town center, with several attempts made at regeneration in the last 10 years.

Croydon prides itself as one of the largest commercial districts in Greater London and has impressive links to the capital, including a tram service

Samara Naqvi, 40, who runs an online electric car parts business with her husband said: ‘I’ve been living in Croydon since 1990 and I used to come here three or four times a week. It was much nicer back then, when there were all the department stores, like Allders and Kennards. Now they’re all closed up and it’s a dump really.’

 

Along with being picked in the Portas Pilot, in 2011 then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced a £23million fund to help redevelop the town

What was the Portas Pilot and did it work? 

What was the Portas Pilot?

Initially carried out in 2011, the Portas Review was carried out by retail expert and TV personality Mary Portas with the aim of stemming high street decline in the UK.

Following the review, 12 English towns were chosen to participate in a scheme designed to help to rejuvenate their shopping areas. 

They were given a share of a £1.2million Government grant to fund schemes put forward by each of the towns.

Plans included creating new cultural quarters, setting up regular markets and creating new leadership groups to set out plans for the future.

Grant Shapps, who was Local Government Minister at the time, said the pilots hoped the towns would be ‘the vanguard of a high street revolution’.

Was it a success?

As a PR campaign, most definitely.  It brought the issue of high street decline to the forefront of the national discussion and is still talked about by researchers, experts, the press and those within the Portas towns even today.

But it was always going to be an uphill battle with the rise of the internet and social media and the resultant change in shopping habits – something that has been exacerbated recently by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Some town centre leaders say the funding, a mere £100,000 per town, was just a drop in the ocean compared to how much investment is really needed to reinvigorate the high street.

In 2017 the BBC, with data from the Local Data Company (LDC), found that in the first five years of the project there was a net loss of nearly 1,000 shops in the Portas towns, a drop of 17 per cent.

And giants such as BHS and Debenhams – which closed its stores earlier this year but remains in existence online via Boohoo – have since departed from high streets up and down the UK.

However some towns still have traces of their Portas projects left. 

And many are undergoing, or are set to undergo, large scale multimillion-pound regeneration projects that could completely change the futures of the towns.

So while it is fair to say the project didn’t live up to its aim of ‘kicking starting a high street renaissance’, its mark on the high street remains.

Along with being picked in the Portas Pilot, in 2011 then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced a £23million fund to help redevelop the town.

But residents say if the government has invested any money over the past 10-years it hasn’t worked. 

Samara Naqvi, 40, who runs an online electric car parts business with her husband said: ‘I’ve been living in Croydon since 1990 and I used to come here three or four times a week. 

‘It was much nicer back then, when there were all the department stores, like Allders and Kennards. 

‘Now they’re all closed up and it’s a dump really. 

‘So I don’t think the Portas scheme has worked because all the small shops have closed down. 

‘Except for those weird bargain shops and phone shops, they’re all gone.’

Robert Reakes, 75, a retired security supervisor said: ‘I’ve been living in Croydon for nearly 30 years and let me tell you, the high street has changed a lot.

‘It’s busy at this time of year obviously, but normally it’s just a few people buying bits and bobs.’

Teresa Portwine, 63, a security officer who goes by the name of Teepee said: ‘I was born in Croydon and have lived here my whole life, so nearly 63-years. 

‘It was an awesome place Croydon when I was growing up. 

‘The shop across the road, that used to be Allders and was considered one of the nicest shop in Croydon. 

‘Now it’s just a big grey block that has been boarded up.

‘The other department store Kennards used to have a donkey ride and wooden bridge for the kids to play on. 

‘These days people avoid Croydon like the plague because it’s got a bad reputation. 

‘It’s awful, because it used to be such a great place for a day out.’

Victoria Ipindamitan, 57, a biomedical scientist added: ‘I’ve been living in Croydon since 2008 and walk down the high street sometimes. 

‘I’d heard about the Portas scheme before, but I haven’t seen anything come of it. 

‘They said they were going to build a shopping centre like Westfield, but that hasn’t happened.

‘Shops have been closing more and more and Covid has been the final nail in the coffin.’ 

Croydon had pinned its regeneration hopes on a new Westfield shopping centre – a £1.4billion plan to replace the 50-year-old Whitgift. 

Local leaders had hoped would revitalise the town centre. 

But with no work started, the planning permission for the scheme expired earlier this year. The council said in a report earlier this year that the scheme is no longer an ‘appropriate or sustainable development’. 


Robert Reakes (pictured left), 75, a retired security supervisor said: ‘I’ve been living in Croydon for nearly 30 years and let me tell you, the high street has changed a lot.’ Victoria Ipindamitan (pictured right), 57, a biomedical scientist added: ‘I’ve been living in Croydon since 2008 and walk down the high street sometimes. Shops have been closing more and more and Covid has been the final nail in the coffin.’

There have however been some good points, including the 2016 opening of Box Park – a food and drinks hall which similarly kick-started a regeneration of Shoreditch in 2011 and which became a focal point for celebrations during England’s Euro2020 campaign.

Meanwhile, Croydon Partnership, a group pushing to redevelop Croydon town centre, is working on a plan to repurpose part of the former Allders building, which has been empty since 2019, possibly for an educational organisation. 

Dartford

The Kent town of Dartford is perhaps best known nowadays for its nearby River Thames crossing points the Dartford Tunnel and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, along with its status as a key commuter town.

But it was once a well-known industrial town, home to paper mills, flour mills, breweries and concrete factories.

Swanscombe Cement Works, one of the town’s biggest employers prior to its closure in 1990, is now Bluewater – the huge out-of-town shopping destination next to the M25.

While Bluewater is now one of the most popular shopping destinations in the south, Dartford’s once bustlining main high street has been in decline in the last 20 years.  

The Kent town of Dartford is perhaps best known nowadays for its nearby River Thames crossing points the Dartford Tunnel and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, along with its status as a key commuter town

Dartford’s shopping centre, The Priory and went into receivership in 2013 – before being bought by private investors two years later and remains open today.

A large department store previously occupied by the Co-Op was demolished in 2012, though plans are underway to convert the site into a mixed development site with new homes, a new cinema and a new hotel.

Meanwhile, plans are also in place to finally turn a site at Lowfield Street – which has been unused since Tesco pulled out six years ago – into new homes.

The council is also investing £12million – £7.7million from the Homes and Community Agency and £4.3million from the Local Growth Fund – to improve the town centre.

Greater Bedminster

Good schools, quick train links to Exeter and a short walk to Bristol city centre makes Greater Bedminster a sought-after location in the south west.

But while property prices are on the up in Bedminster, the town centre, which is Bristol’s second largest shopping district, has over the last 10 years been on the decline.

A number of banks have left while Boots and Poundstretcher announced they were quitting Bedminster last year.

Community leaders are however attempting to revive the struggling shopping district, which was granted £10million in 2018 to help regeneration efforts.  

While property prices are on the up in Bedminster, the town centre, which is Bristol’s second largest shopping district, has over the last 10 years been on the decline

But even that has so far failed to stem the tide of businesses leaving the area. Now plans are in place for a £10million redevelopment of the town’s East Street area. 

George Grace, leader of the area’s Business Improvement District made clear the need for the investment, telling Bristol Live: ‘East Street had no other option than to see significant investment over the next few years, otherwise it would continue to slowly die.’ 

Earlier this year Asda unveiled its new-look store in Bedminster after a £3.3m refurbishment, while plans were approved in March to demolish the town’s run-down shopping centre and turn it into high-rise apartment blocks. 

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea

Much like Margate, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea is a former Victorian seaside resort enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.

The seaside town, situated on the Northumberland coast, and 16 miles east of Newcastle, has found fame in recent months as one of the filming locations for ITV’s hit crime drama Vera.

And it is, according to the Times, becoming an increasingly popular spot for second home hunters who want the coastal life without the Cornwall prices.

That’s because it is one of the cheapest coastal towns in Britain, with average house prices being £117,895 in June 2021, according to getagent.co.uk.  

The high street meanwhile has cashed in on its old world charm and today is jam packed with independent gift shops and quaint cafes and bars.

Much like Margate, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea is a former Victorian seaside resort enjoying somewhat of a renaissance

The seaside town, situated on the Northumberland coast, and 16 miles east of Newcastle, has found fame in recent months as one of the filming locations for ITV’s hit crime drama Vera


Henry Abbott (pictured left), 67, who has owned Henry’s Salon in the town for 43 years, said: ‘The grant from the Portas Pilot paid for shop owners to get smart finishings done on the outside of their stores. ‘That has made a huge difference.’ Fiona Rowley (pictured right), 63, said: ‘The grant has made it more attractive for smaller businesses to set up shop here.

The retail guru nicknamed ‘Mary, Queen of Shops’ who was tasked with leading Britain’s high street review: Who is Mary Portas?

From a department store shop assistant to the town centre guru tasked with saving Britain’s declining high streets, Mary Portas has seen it all in retail.

Born in Watford, Herts, in 1960, to a large Irish family, Portas turned down a career in the arts following the death of her mother, aged 16, to a brain inflammation and her father two years later to a heart attack.

Aged 18, she turned down a place at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to look after her younger brother.

Instead, she pursued a career in retail, at first working part-time in John Lewis, before getting a full-time job with Harrods as a window dresser. 

From here she joined Topshop, where she was spotted by founder and Burton Group chairman Sir Ralph Mark Halpern.

She later helped shape Harvey Nichols into a leading brand, becoming a member of the company’s board by the age of 30. 

But she left the business, telling the Radio Times, ‘I wanted to create my own world. I wanted freedom’.

Portas founded Yellowdoor, a retail advisory agency, which she later re-launched as Portas Agency Ltd.

Today the company advises top firms around the world, with her previous firm, Yellowdoor, having worked with the likes of Louis-Vuitton, Sainsbury’s and Westfield. 

Portas also helped set up Save the Children’s Living and Giving Shops – many of which are in London. The boutique style charity shops have raised more than £23million and are credited with revolutionising the charity shop format. 

With her rapid rise in the world of retail and her striking red hair, Portas became a recognisable TV personality, featuring on day-time shows, in documentaries, recording her own series and writing a weekly column with the Daily Telegraph.

In 2011 she filmed Mary Portas: Secret Shopper, in which she helped renowned brands and high street chains improve the quality of service they provide to their customers, and she has written five books, the latest, Rebuild, was published in July 2021.

It has not all been plain sailing for Portas however and to date the Portas Review remains a blot on her otherwise stellar career, in which she once proudly: ‘I’m one of the best in the world at retail’.

In 2013 she was  forced to deny the the Portas Review was a giant exercise in self-publicity.

Portas, speaking in front of a committee of MPs, said: ‘Sometimes I wish I hadn’t put my name on it as I have taken a huge bashing for work I have done for nothing, and I think that has been completely unfair.’ 

She also came under fire after telling MPs that she had not been paid for the Government role. 

While that was true, it later revealed that three shows she filmed about the role – called Mary: Queen Of The High Street – were part of a £500,000 deal with Channel 4. 

In her personal life, Portas was married for 14 years to Unilver executive Graham Portas, with whom she had two children.

She then began dating Melanie Rickey. In December 2014, Portas and Rickey became one of the first couples in the UK to convert their civil partnership to a marriage.

*MailOnline reached out to Portas through her Portas Agency for comment on this article but did not receive a response 

Its revamp has seen an influx of tourists to the area. Henry Abbott, 67, who has owned Henry’s Salon in the town for 43 years, said: ‘The grant from the Portas Pilot paid for shop owners to get smart finishings done on the outside of their stores.

‘That has made a huge difference. The high street now looks like a much more attractive place to visit.

‘The aim was to focus on the historical aspect of Newbiggin. We wanted to make it look like an old fashioned village, and that has attracted more tourism. 

‘In other villages you see so many stores boarded up, but it’s not like that here. The area was hit hard by the recession, but then this grant came in and things have really picked up since then. We’re very grateful for it.’

In 2011, the Maritime Centre, a museum showcasing the town’s seafaring history, opened to the public. An original Lowry painting is currently on display, drawing even more sightseers to the area.

Meanwhile, extensive work has also been done on the promenade and access to the seafront has been improved.

Gifted by the Sea sells wares from local artists and crafters. Fiona Rowley, 63, said: ‘The grant has made it more attractive for smaller businesses to set up shop here.

‘The entire street is filled with independent shops, which is the selling point. The high street is so unique it doesn’t have to compete with online retailers, people come here for the independents.

‘I set up five years ago and I couldn’t have done that without the grant as it got the ball rolling in terms of investment.

‘The cosmetic changes meant I knew I would be able to attract customers.’  

Volunteer worker Alison Sutherland, 56, who has lived in Newbiggin all her life, said: ‘The Portas Review has made the village better for everyone. 

‘The area is completely different from what it was 20 years ago. There’s much more tourism.

‘The high street has been completely transformed and now promotes the local economy. 

‘There’s people who come here from Ashington, three miles away, just because they like the shops we have to offer.’ 

It could also be about to get even better for Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, with council chiefs earlier this year signing off on a £3million regeneration fund. 

Liskeard

Dating back as far as the 8th Century, the Cornish town of Liskeard has plenty of history. Located on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and around 20 miles west of Plymouth, it was once gifted by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain, the second Earl of Cornwall.

It was designated a market town by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1240, becoming a key trading point in the area.

And it was one of the last towns in Cornwall to have a regular livestock market, ending in 2017. The town was also a key point for the tin mining industry in the 20th century.

But like many market towns it has seen a huge decrease in through traffic with the building of a bypass opened in 1976.

It was one of the 12 locations chosen to receive £100,000 in the 2012 Portas Pilot. But it was immediately thrown into the spotlight when Mary Portas visited the town that same year.

She criticised shop owners of attempting to ‘cash in’ on the project, after two raised asking prices on their properties in the wake of the pilot scheme. 

Ms Portas called it ‘ridiculous’ and ‘short-minded’ on a visit to the town in 2012. She also said her first impression was that Liskeard was ‘rather beautiful, but also rather empty and not got enough people in it’.

Despite the investment, footfall meanwhile has continued to fall, down to an average of around 6000, from a high of nearly 10,000 at the start of the century.

Shop vacancy rates in the town also reached an eight year high of 12.4 per cent – still below the average for Cornwall – last year.

The data, which covers the period of lockdown last year, shows the figure rose from 10.3 per cent in 2019.

Dating back as far as the 8th Century, the Cornish town of Liskeard has plenty of history. Located on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and around 20 miles west of Plymouth, it was once gifted by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain, the second Earl of Cornwall

However there are major plans to improve the town centre. In November work began on a £5.1million regeneration project of the town’s former cattle market to convert it into an office and workshop space for local businesses.

It is expected to add £1.2million a year to the local economy and support around 33 jobs. The plans were created through Cornwall’s first ever interactive planning and design ‘charette’ – a series of collaboration events with residents and businesses.

Market Rasen

A name well known to horse racing fans, Market Rasen in Lincolnshire is home to the National Hunt racecourse with which it shares its name. 

The town, which is centred on the River Rase, is around 13 miles north east of Lincoln. Despite having a population of around 3,200 in the 2001 census, the town welcomes thousands of visitors a year due to the year-round racing.

There was much optimism in the town following the announcement of the Portas Review. But business owners complained that, following the end of the scheme, parking charges were introduced which they say impacted on trade.

Market Rasen in Lincolnshire was the worst performer out of all the towns in terms of shops, with a 3.2 percentage point rise in empty stores between March 2012 and March 2013.

It led Portas to launch another booster programme called Market Rasen Business Initiative Group (MR BIG) which backed new businesses including a greengrocer’s and setting up a local market.

However, shop vacancy rates rose to a peak of 13.1 per cent in October 2016. But officials have attempted to make improvements since and with some success. 

A name well known to horse racing fans, Market Rasen in Lincolnshire is home to the National Hunt racecourse with which it shares its name. The town, which is centred on the River Rase, is around 13 miles north east of Lincoln. Despite having a population of around 3,200 in the 2001 census, the town welcomes thousands of visitors a year due to the year-round racing

Market Rasen Town Council began organising special event days to boost footfall in the town. And in 2018, figures showed that on those days footfall increased by up to 50 per cent.  

In February this year the council was also awarded £200,000 for a townscape heritage project.

There are also plans to redevelop the town’s to ‘create a modern, vibrant community centre for the town’, while the town’s old police station could be converted into a tourist information hub as part of a £300,000 plan. 

The council also hopes to convert a car park at the town’s market place into a continental-style piazza to encourage people to come and meet on the high street. 

Nelson

Situated on the outskirts of the Lancashire town of Burnley, and near to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Nelson was once a thriving mill town.

But as with other industrial towns, the manufacturing plants and factories has resulted in job losses, unemployment and low property prices.

Still to this day Nelson has one of the lowest property values in the country. In October a two bedroom house, on went on the market for £10,000 at auction, a month after a terrace house hold for £20,000. The average UK house price in August 2021 was £264,000.

Situated on the outskirts of the Lancashire town of Burnley, and near to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Nelson was once a thriving mill town

The town was picked for a £100,000 grant in the Portas review in 2012. But just a year later research showed that Nelson, alongside Market Rasen, Stockport, Croydon and Stockton-on-Tees had more vacant shops

The town was picked for a £100,000 grant in the Portas review in 2012. But just a year later research showed that Nelson, alongside Market Rasen, Stockport, Croydon and Stockton-on-Tees had more vacant shops.

There was some good news in 2017 however, when figures showed a rise in footfall in the town centre.  And the town earlier this year published a ‘Masterplan’ aiming to regenerate the shopping district. 

The plan has attracted £25million in funding for Nelson under the government’s Town Deal Fund. Plans including upgrading the town’s shopping centre, Pendle Rise.

Local leaders hope the plan will deliver over 500 new jobs, investment in the town centre, commercial floorspace and better walking and cycling routes.

They also want to use part of the money to pay for a new Digital Skills Academy Hub and Youth Employability Service.

Stockport

Located in Greater Manchester, seven miles south east of the city centre, Stockport has always faced the challenge of competing with its much bigger neighbour.

Back in the 16th century Stockport was a small town entirely on the south bank of the Mersey and known for its cultivation of hemp and manufacture of rope and later was at the heart of the cotton weaving industry.

It was also at the centre of the country’s hatting industry, with the last hat factory in Stockport closing in 1997.

Stockport, now the largest town in the Metropolitan district of Greater Manchester, was one of the 12 towns chosen to receive funding in the Portas Review. 

But a year later and criticism already began. Joe Barratt, organiser of The Teenage Market and the filmmaker behind Stockport’s Portas Pilot bid video, took aim at the town centre team for failing to embrace the principles of the scheme.

He told the Guardian in 2013: ‘For me, the blame really lies at the door of those who have failed to embrace the type of change advocated in The Portas Review. That’s right, I’m looking at you, local councils.’ 

Stockport, now the largest town in the Metropolitan district of Greater Manchester, was one of the 12 towns chosen to receive funding in the Portas Review

Mr Barratt accused the town leadership of having an attitude of ‘my way or the highway’, while a Freedom of Information request in 2013 revealed those involved in the Portas scheme had yet to spend a penny of the money.

But since then the town has been undergoing a £1billion redevelopment, which has already seen the delivery of entertainment centre Red Rock, the new business district the Stockport Exchange, now home to firms such as Stagecoach and MusicMaggpie, and new apartment complex The Mailbox. 

Under a plan named Future Stockport, local leaders hope to bring in 3,500 residents into the centre of the town, and revitalise its residential property and retail markets in a similar fashion to the nearby city of Manchester.

Plans for the future include the £60million regeneration of a historic cotton mill in the town centre, as well as the development of new flats on part of the Stockport College’s campus.

Work on Stockport’s new £120million transport interchange is also underway. The hub will boast 20 bus stands, a fully covered passenger concourse, seated waiting areas and real-time bus and train travel information screens.

Stockton-on-Tees

Stockton-on-Tees is a market town in County Durham located between the much larger areas of Darlington, Hartlepool and Middlesborough – with which it is part of the Tees Valley Mayoral area.

The mayoralship was set up in 2017 to drive economic growth and job creation in the area. A former port town up and along the River Tees, the port has long since been moved up the river and closer to the north sea.

It was also once a centre of rail activity too, and in 1822 was the site of the first piece of rail laid of George Stephenson’s Stockton and Darlington rail – an event that would change the face of the world forever.

Stockton also boasts the widest high street in the UK. It also boast the largest outdoor market in the North East. 

Despite this, when it was picked in the 2012 pilot it had the highest proportion of empty shops of any town in the North East.

The money was used on improvements to the Globe Theatre – which once hosted huge musical names including the Beatles, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder – to help boost the evening leisure economy. The theatre has since undergone a huge £30million facelift. 

Earlier this year radical plans were approved to remove half the high street, including knocking down the town’s Castlegate shopping centre, and replacing it with a £37million river park

The Portas money also went towards regular, specialist and evening markets on the high street.

But the town’s true renaissance is still to come. Earlier this year radical plans were approved to remove half the high street, including knocking down the town’s Castlegate shopping centre, and replacing it with a £37million river park.

The park, which will be three times the size of Trafalgar Square in London, will help reconnect the town centre to the river.

Under plans, the town’s leisure centre is also due to be closed and replaced by a £15million facility with a pool and gym.

The building will also include a new library, a register office, meeting spaces and customer service centre. 

Nigel Cooke, the council’s development chief, told the Guardian earlier this year of the plans: ‘The aim is to create a cultural feel around events, festivals and so on. 

‘Other towns will have their particular assets. Our story is a wonderful riverside. Make the most of what you have got.’

Wolverhampton

Once a major centre for coal mining, steel production, lock making, and the manufacture of cars and motorcycles, Wolverhampton has had to adapt to the times.

Now the city, which lies to the north-west of its Midlands rival Birmingham, is a centre point for engineering and aerospace development.

But like so many cities and towns on the outskirts of larger cities, its high street has faced an uphill battle before and since the Portas review. 

But like so many cities and towns on the outskirts of larger cities, its high street has faced an uphill battle before and since the Portas review

Darren Martin, 43, owner of Kings Street Toys and Collectibles, added: ‘Some people have set up shops and been lucky to continue operating. Others have left.

‘The city centre has changed. There’s a one-way system, but it makes it tricky for people to get access. It affects businesses in some sense, like deliveries.

‘A lot of people find it hard to get places as the bus routes have changed. People with walking difficulties.

‘There are a lot of empty shops now. A lot of derelict places. It makes the place look bad. There’s a lot of broken and uneven paving.

‘Money should be spent on helping the litter problem. It should be dealt with quicker. There’s too many empty shops.’

Charlotte Clark, 34, manager of Shop in the Square, an independent gifts shop, said: ‘In 2012 there was a competition in Wolverhampton, there was a competition for start up businesses to apply for a shop front as part of the Portars bid to regenerate highstreets.’

Richard Nicholls, 47, owner of Millers jewellers, said: ‘I’m quite shocked it’s been ten years, I remember it being announced. I know it gave out a select amount of money to towns who had to apply for it.

‘I couldn’t even say who got the money or who even applied. I don’t think it was a great success.

‘People weren’t happy with the way it was spent. They felt it wasn’t spent correctly. I can’t remember much positivity over it.

‘I’ve been here since 1968. The high street has changed quite a lot. I think the town centre looks relatively smart.

‘It’s just that things don’t stay as long. We have the shopping centres which look smart.

‘The money could have been spent on more general spending, cleaning streets. I’m not 100%.’

Charlotte Clark, 34, manager of Shop in the Square, an independent gifts shop, said: ‘In 2012 there was a competition in Wolverhampton, there was a competition for start up businesses to apply for a shop front as part of the Portars bid to regenerate highstreets.

‘Shop in the Square was an offshoot of the competition. I was contacted by the council in 2013.

‘They had a lot of product-based entries in the competition that they wanted the facilitate, so they created this. It started off as ‘The Showcase shop’ but we ended up in Queens Square and decided to change the name to ‘Shop in the Square’.

‘We’ve been trading since June 2013 and we showcase the work of up to 24 local designers. We allow designers to showcase their work and test what products sell.

‘It gives people the opportunity to sell in a high street location.

‘We’ve been running 8 and a half years, we have been pretty successful. We’re long last despite lots of challenges along the way. We’re a not for profit company.

‘There’s still 3 Portas scheme shops that I know of in the city centre, so it has been sort of successful. They’re 3 companies that definitely would not have arrived if it wasn’t for the Portas scheme.

‘I initially ran an art shop and I was approached by the council to set up this. My previous experience helped a lot.

‘I hope this lasts into the future. The pandemic hit us hard but I hope we last. We’re positive.’

Ruth Drewett, 47, Trophy Centre, co owner, said: ‘After our shop, there’s nothing, they’re all over the otherside of the road.

‘The indoor market was moved. I haven’t seen much change while I have been here. Nothing has changed down here, anyway.

Ruth Drewett, 47, Trophy Centre, co owner, said: ‘After our shop, there’s nothing, they’re all over the otherside of the road. ‘The indoor market was moved. I haven’t seen much change while I have been here. Nothing has changed down here, anyway.’

‘I’d want any change down here. Anything. They’ve just got rid of stuff. They’ve made it hard.

‘There’s shops closing all over the place, I don’t see any difference. The town is quieter.

‘We do get forgotten about down here.

‘I’d want parking around here improved. We don’t know any shop that managed to benefit from it here. There’s too many short term businesses.

‘Dudley Street has always been the main street where I’ve seen change. Luckily we’re very niche so we get a lot of customers who know what they want.’ 

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