Shame we were dropped from Portas pilots

Mary Portas
Mary Portas

I WAS pleased to read in the Hartlepool Mail a week or so ago that the new BHS department store in the shopping centre has had an “incredible” first six months.

The store has been a dramatic and very welcome addition to the Middleton Grange centre, creating something like 50 jobs and bringing back into use the former Woolworth’s shop.

The front of the store, with its mezzanine cafe floor is vibrant and modern and you can be guaranteed to get a decent cup of coffee or tea at a reasonable price.

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On occasions journalists have come up to Hartlepool to do a piece on the town and I have taken them to BHS as they can get a decent sense of the town from looking over the square.

So-called “anchor” stores like BHS are vital to the survival of high streets and shopping centres like ours, as they can attract customers to the centres which in turn can help to attract other shops and amenities.

The news is very welcome, especially as, on the same day the Hartlepool Mail article was published, the Government announced 15 towns that would receive public money to assist them to help revitalise their town centres.

This public funding, the so-called “Portas Pilots”, was in response to the publication last year of the review of high streets by Mary Portas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no towns in our area received any money from the Government, despite the fact that shopping centres in towns like Stockton, Darlington and Middlesbrough are suffering in the same way that we are as a result of increasing economic problems, falling economic demand and changes in the way in which we shop in the 21st century.

The nearest town to receive money was Berwick-upon-Tweed, which I wouldn’t have thought had the same economic problems and shop voids as Hartlepool and other similar towns.

The Local Government Minister, Grant Shapps, wrote to me and other MPs whose towns were unsuccessful in the Portas Pilots, to invite us to become a “Town Team Partner”, which might enable Hartlepool to gain access to a share of a further package of support later in the year.

Perhaps I’m becoming a touch cynical in my old age, but I’m somewhat sceptical of the actual merits of whether signing up to become a Town Team Partner will eventually result in additional money from the Government.

It sounds like a gimmick to me.

However, I’m always keen to ensure that I work to bring money and investment into the town and the ongoing survival of the shopping centre is an important matter for me, which is why I have responded to the Minister and asked to become such a partner.

I have written about this topic in the past, not least when Mary Portas’ review came out last year.

I don’t blame any Government for the decline of high streets and shopping centres across the country – I think it’s ludicrous to suggest that, although the present Government’s policy of stripping demand out of the economy does not give people confidence to spend in the shops.

I’ve also said before that the shopping centre will struggle given that we in the town have three big supermarkets where it is free to park.

That is bound to have an impact.

In addition, the rise of internet shopping means that some things like books are easier and cheaper to buy on-line than in the flesh in the shopping centre.

However, the shopping centre is important and needs to change with the times.

I believe it should become a destination where people agree to meet. I think the town should consider the prospect of utilising empty retail units for residents, community groups, creative and start-up businesses as a means of kick starting enterprise in the economy.

I hope that by signing up to become a Town Team Partner I stand a chance of obtaining funding into Hartlepool as a means of helping to secure the ongoing life of the shopping centre.