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Grimsey Vs. Portas: The battle for the future of Britain's high streets

Which of the retail giants is most likely to win the battle to save the nation's high streets?

It's a widely accepted fact that Britain's high streets are in trouble - the latest reports suggest that as many as 14% of shops across the country are now empty, and it's clear small businesses are feeling the squeeze.

While the issue was exacerbated by the recession and highlighted in 2011 when a bleak study claimed retailers could face a decade of restricted consumer spending, negative news has continued to come to the fore - most recently from former Wickes and Iceland boss Bill Grimsey.

According to Grimsey, current attempts to rejuvenate the high street are failing to have the necessary impact, meaning more than one in eight shops could go out of business in the next three years.

War of words

The retail giant's words were aimed at Mary Portas, whose Portas Pilot scheme - an initiative which uses government funding in a bid to support independent retailers - has been running since last year.

Portas has come under criticism for the project and its apparent failings, with Grimsey labelling it "little more than a PR stunt" designed to boost her profile. The self-styled Queen of the High Street responded that she "must have done something to Mr Grimsey in a former life" after hearing his comments, adding that his approach doesn't sound like that of someone who cares about high streets. The battle lines were drawn.

Anything you can do…

The Portas Review was initially published at the end of 2011, and comprised 28 recommendations that were designed to reverse the downward spiral smaller retailers had found themselves trapped in. Following what Grimsey considers the failure of the project, he's now produced 31 suggestions of his own.

It's clear that small businesses need support in order to both survive and grow, and if that assistance isn't coming from above then it may be best to look to each other

Much of the former Iceland chief's plans are based on a one-off levy being enforced in 2014. This would see all retailers and pub groups with a UK turnover in excess of £10m donate 0.25% of their annual sales to a fund designed to support startups - effectively a way of giving back to the high street.

Grimsey claims this will generate £550m that could be invested in modernising and reinventing bricks and mortar locations - it's an ambitious plan, and in many respects one that goes against the very principle on which the Portas Pilot was devised.

Dead or alive?

Mary Portas designed her model on the belief that the traditional British high street can be saved, whereas the proposals presented by Grimsey are formulated on the idea that such a notion is extinct - the high street of the past is dead, and things need to change if such locations are going to remain a focal point for local communities.

In Grimsey's vision, the high street becomes a hub for social activity rather than a centre for shopping - businesses, arts, entertainment and leisure all have their part to play. The approach involves accepting the fact that online stores place unbearable pressure on bricks and mortar locations, so the key is to embrace the trend rather than ignore it. Widespread wi-fi and digital networking in high streets are just two of the possibilities outlined by the former Wickes boss.

Common ground

Yet despite the overriding differences, there is common ground on which Portas and Grimsey agree - namely that accessibility and business rates have to be improved so as it's easier for SMEs to establish themselves without the threat of expensive overheads.

Another area in which the two believe positive change can be made is through bigger retailers giving something back - specifically by supporting startups in nearby areas. The methods through which they argue this can be implemented may contrast, but the principle is largely the same.

Beyond the battle

If there's one thing to take from all of this, it's that urgent action is needed to prevent high streets from disappearing altogether - stores are at risk, and if they go under then communities and wider economies ultimately suffer.

Yet despite the consensus, few things tend to happen when the biggest players cannot agree on a definitive direction - something further emphasised by Michael Weedon of the British Independent Retailers Association, who believes Grimsey's vision is too focused on providing a short-term injection rather than a long-term impetus.

Whatever does happen, it's clear that small businesses need support in order to both survive and grow. If that assistance isn't coming from above, then it may be best to look to each other for stability, direction and planning in order to tackle problems now rather than wait for them to intensify. 

Image credit: Robin Webster