I was both delighted and dismayed to read last week about the creation of the government led, Future High Streets Forum.

If you haven’t heard about it, the forum brings together leaders across retail, property and business to ‘advise government on the challenges facing high streets and to help develop practical policies to enable town centres to adapt and change’.

Sounds fantastic I thought. Clearly, the high street is suffering. We’ve seen a number of big name casualties over the last couple of years (and many thousands of smaller independents go under that receive little or no publicity). A walk through my home city of Brighton provides evidence enough that all is not well with the high street with boarded up properties aplenty.

Therefore, a group that includes high-level representatives from the likes of Alliance Boots, Costa Coffee, John Lewis Partnership and The British Retail Consortium, with a remit to ‘focus on future high street renewal’, must be a good thing.

But then I read the fine print…and sighed…heavily.

The elephant in the room

In its first meeting, co-chaired by Local Growth Minister, Mark Prisk, the forum discussed the Mary Portas Review and the progress made off the back of her recommendations.

Now, I’ve made no secret of my views around the Mary Portas review (and I am not the only one). Whilst the report noted the role that the internet has played in changing consumer behaviour, it was too easily dismissed as ’one of the key threats to retail on our high streets’

As such, of the 28 recommendations put forward in the review, not one made reference to the role that the internet (and mobile) can actually play in helping to solve many of the problems Mary Portas cited.

So with the creation of the Future High Streets Forum, here was a chance for a new group of carefully selected individuals to address the big, white elephant in the corner of the room: digital.

Yet the news release on the gov.uk website, outlining the role of the forum and the main areas of discussion at the first meeting, doesn’t mention the word 'digital' at all. Neither does it include the words ‘online’, ‘internet’ or indeed 'mobile'.

Instead, those stalwarts of local government policy, ‘planning’, ‘parking’, and ‘property’ make up the lion’s share of the rhetoric.

Now I’m not saying these things are not important. I am sure changes to policies that have perhaps been inflexible and prohibitive in the past can make some difference.

But when are the ‘powers that be’ going to wake up, stop dismissing the internet simply as a ‘threat’ and instead acknowledge that it has a fundamental role to play in high street regeneration? 

A proposed agenda for the next forum meeting

The role of the forum appears to build on the Mary Portas Review, rather than challenge it.

With this in mind, can I be so bold to suggest one or two questions for the forum to discuss at the next meeting that, in my view, will start getting to the real crux of the issue?

For example: 

  • How has the internet changed consumer habits and behaviours? For example, is to too straighforward to assume that consumers have simply 'swapped' the time spent on the high street for their laptops, mobiles and tablets? (Clue: the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’)
  • What do consumers really care about? Is parking, for example, a real issue in consumers’ minds?
  • How have the leading retailers utilised digital technology and online marketing initiatives, in tandem with their in-store strategies, to increase awareness, customer acquisition and improve experience?
  • How could small businesses (cost effectively) utilise digital to complement their traditional routes to market? 
  • What role could mobile applications and gamification play in driving footfall and engagement?
  • What policies, processes and guidelines could be put in place to support digital innovation in small retailers? 

I don’t claim to be a retail expert but I have been in digital marketing for a long time. It took me five minutes to come up with a few questions that would be interesting (and relevant) discussion points.

Clearly, it will take longer to come up with the answers but to do so you need to be asking the right questions in the first place.

I do understand that many of the initiatives outlined in the Portas Review are aimed at small or micro-businesses, such as market holders. But it would be ignorant not to consider how digital can play a part in helping even the smallest of businesses thrive.

Perhaps I am wrong in assuming that digital is not on the forum’s agenda. But if it turns out that the forum is simply an extension of the Portas review, criticised by so many for its ignorance to digital’s role in high street regeneration, than my concerns might not be misplaced.

Luckily, the private sector looks to be ahead of the game. For example, a new market place for pop up shops, Appear Here, has recently launched that makes renting unoccupied retail space much easier. It is outside the box, creative thinking like this that will really make the difference in my view.

Or we could all just bury our heads in the sand, rather like this retailer in Australia. Sick of showrooming, it now charges for people to enter the store. Somehow, I don’t think this is the answer.


What do you think? Is the Mary Portas Review, and the apparent remit of the forum, enough? What questions would you recommend are discussed at the next meeting?

If the goverment and the High Streets Forum (and you) want to find out more on how digital can help offline retailers, check out our How the Internet Can Save the High Street report, which contains valuable advice for retailers that Mary Portas missed. 

Other related reading: 

'Showroming' image courtesy of BarrettFox, Reddit.com

'Elephant' Bitboy via Flickr

'Closing down' image courtesy of Gwydion M. Williams

Ben Potter

Published 9 April, 2013 by Ben Potter

Ben Potter is the former Commercial Director at Leapfrogg and now a new business mentor to aspiring digital agencies. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

24 more posts from this author

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Comments (15)

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Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

While I share your dismay, it doesn't surprise me that yet another government high street initiative fails to mention digital.

However, I am surprised that a forum involving retailers like John Lewis and Tesco, who have made use of mobile, wi-fi and other digital technology in their stores, should seemingly ignore this elephant in the room.

As with many things, retailers need to find out for themselves how digital can help them (and it doesn't necessarily require huge budgets) and their stores rather than waiting for the government to catch up.

over 5 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

I think this is essentially the 'execution' of much of the portas review, hence missing any web/digital elements. If you look carefully:

1. Two of the three objectives mention the portas review/portas pilots.
2. You'll see the Managing Partner of Portas is one of the group members.

I've written to Mark Prisk via his website. I suggest if anyone else has read far enough down to see this comment & has an opinion about this, please do the same:



over 5 years ago



The North Laine Traders in Brighton need to share the costs to set up a single web front-end allowing all shops to sell online.

This shouldn't be a portal to individual websites, but something modelled on notonthehighstreet.com where you search for a product out of a pool, regardless of which trader it is. Individual product pages can tell you who, exactly, stocks it and give some more information about them.

You then buy online and all orders are shipped same day, using a pooled service (i.e. at 3pm someone checks all the orders, collects them from the shops, packs and ships them on behalf of everyone in the group). Returns and queries can also be handled centrally, taking the pressure off what in most cases are one or two person businesses.

This would not only allow all traders to get a proper sales presence online for a fraction of the cost (because it's shared) but would also promote the whole area as a single, unique shopping zone, perhaps even internationally. This can then only be good for foot-fall. It would also mean that day-trippers could get home and think "I really loved that thing I saw, I'm going to buy it!" rather than having to make a sale, or more likely not, there and then when they're thinking about heading to the beach instead.

I love notonthehighstreet.com but imagine if they could also say "Enjoy shopping here? Imagine if you could just wander around all the stores for real!". There's not many places that can say and do that.

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Dan Yes, which suggests that no-one has taken any of the feedback onboard about the Portas Review's shortcomings.

It seems the money allocated hasn't been put to much use either, with just 12% spent, some on Peppa Pig costumes according to the Indy: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/portas-pilot-towns-wasted-grants-on-items-like-a-1600-peppa-pig-costume-8494026.html

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Rick - that's a great idea, and the kind of thing that Portas Pilot money should be used for.

MyHighSt launched such a site for Wells in Somerset. Execution wasn't perfect by any means, but i think the idea is good.


over 5 years ago


Jane Johnston

Great post, Ben. I've forwarded to the Association of Town & City Management (ATCM) which sits on the Future High Streets Forum and is working with us on Digital High Street 2013. ATCM is interesting as they're the official advisors on Portas town team spend, and are piloting their own digital initiatives with MoLo mobile rewards in Reading.

ATCM CEO Martin Blackwell is speaking on digital tech at Digital High Street 2013 (13-14 May), as is their Reading project lead, Guy Douglas. So, the space is engaged and moving - it's just not reflected in the government briefings.

Graham - you mention MyHighSt. Another is OpenHighSt which is backed by Unilever. Again, both are sharing their trial results with Town Teams (and forum members) at Digital High Street 2013.

There's more info in the Digital High Street programme http://digihighst.com/programme/

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Jane sounds an interesting event, I might have to come along.

over 5 years ago


Ben Potter

Hi All,

Thank you for your comments.

@Dan - I agree that the remit of the forum appears to the execution of Mary Portas' recommendations. For me, this is the fundamental problem. By failing to include a digital element in her recommendations, by default the forum do not appear to be either.

@Rick - great idea - very much along the lines of my own thinking. It is probably unrealistic to think that a small, independent retailer in the Laines will have enough budget/resource to compete in an increasingly complex online space. However, by working together smaller traders could develop a really interesting proposition, opening up a new channel at a fraction of the cost. It feels to me that this is a missing component of the Portas Review - how could smaller retailers join forces to develop a digital offering? In that respect, MyHighSt. and OpenHighSt look like interesting models.

@Jane - thanks for forwarding to ATCM - it sounds as though digital is part of their remit, which is great. I look forward to seeing how some of the projects you refer to evolve over the coming months.

over 5 years ago


Dan Root

It's funny Jane should pop up on here, I was just about the mention the Digital High Street Conference.

Graham, the retail expert mentioned in in the Independents story there, Paul Turner-Mitchell (@Paul25Ten on Twitter) just happens to be a personal friend of mine, he's also speaking at the conference it would be well worth you having a chat with him about this very subject.

over 5 years ago

Tony Duarte

Tony Duarte, Senior Media Consultant at Fluxx Ltd

@Ben, great post, and really interesting thread. Perhaps another digital model that could help drive foot-fall is the Four Square check-in model. If local traders could contribute to a check-in currency redeemable as mobile credits - tie in with mobile operators - or as vouchers redeemable in local stores, it could be a driver of foot-fall.

We hosted an event recently at Fluxx - The Future of the HIgh Street - which included Philip Beeching (ex-HMV marketing exec) and Stephen Godfroy (co-owner of Rough Trade) in discussing what you could do now if you were given the HMV brand. It led to a wider discussion about how digital can complement or support the High Street and the unique experiences the High Street can provide. You can get an overview in our blog http://bit.ly/XtNc4w

Philip Beeching shared his take on his blog and its well worth checking out http://bit.ly/14dIzRq

over 5 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

I haven't checked but which government department commissioned the Portas Review and is overseeing/sponsoring this follow up initiative?

I ask because I have been impressed with what the Cabinet Office has been doing in the last few years to 'deliver on digital'. Specifically Martha Lane-Fox's report that Francis Maude commissioned (see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/digital-by-default-proposed-for-government-services) and the subsequent set up of Government Digital Services (see http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/) which I think is doing excellent work.

I'd put the above lot in charge of the High Street!

(In all seriousness we are increasingly seeing, within companies, the 'digital' lot being put in charge of running not just 'digital' but 'offline' too).

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Ashley Not the Cabinet Office unfortunately.

According to the Forum's page, It's the Dept for Business, Investment & Skills (BIS) and Dept for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

over 5 years ago


Martin Blakwell

As a member of the Future High Street Forum, representing the Association of Town & City Management I can say fear not! The Forum has only met once and was scoping out ideas. I can assure you that digital was brought up a number of times and there is a clear recognition that it’s fundamental. You are right to say that the Portas Review was silent on this, but there was no mention of the Evening & Night Time Economy either. That’s worth £60d a year and employs 1.2m people. We reckon that 27% of all town centres sales fit in this category.

ATCM takes this so serious we have appointed a Digital High St programme manager, Guy Douglas, to try to take a holistic view. We have set up a group of the BRC, GSMA (mobile operators) and UK Card Issuers to try and do that.

I will make it my mission to ensure digital stays firmly on the Forum’s agenda!

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Martin - glad to hear it. Do let us know your progress.

over 5 years ago


Marcus Kirsch

As it is not surprising, to see that government is out of touch with reality, even when looking at future opportunities, it is unbelievable how far that conservative attitude goes when talking about modern solutions for classic problems.
The report as cited sounds highly reactionary, likely the worst place to start at. Maybe that's a governmental oversight, given that the recent forum or table for the 'silicon roundabout' area didn't involve a creative voice at the table.

My comment would be, ignore whatever government and their suppliers come up with. Get your own people together, create a proposal, build an example or two and ask for gov support under your conditions. Unfortunately, especially when it comes to solving problems, governments tend to have not very favorable statistics.

Which doesn't mean there are no ways to work with them.

about 5 years ago

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