Braintree: Retailers still have faith in Portas Town initiative

George Yard Shopping Centre in Braintree

George Yard Shopping Centre in Braintree - Credit: Archant

Retail bosses in a north Essex town say they still have faith in the Mary Portas scheme to revitalise ailing high streets despite seeing an increase in the number of empty shop units over the past year.

Braintree was awarded £86,500 last July after being selected as a beneficiary of the second round of the High Street Innovation Fund – an initiative championed by TV retail guru Mary Portas.

But, according to Braintree District Council, in the past year it has seen its shop unit vacancy rate increase by 1% to 10%. This trend chimes with many other ‘Portas Towns’ around the country. Recent research collated for Radio 4 showed that 10 out of the 12 towns selected in the first round of funding have seen an increase in empty shopping outlets.

But retail leaders in Braintree say it is too early to judge the impact of the Portas cash on their town and that they are using the extra funds to create “sustainable” changes for the long-term.

According to Liz Storey, chairman of Braintree’s Town Team, set up to promote the town in the wake of the Portas funding, only £14,500 of the money has been spent so far.

She said: “Some people have misunderstood what the Portas money is for. The whole idea is to build something sustainable in the town.

“We are a cautious bunch and we never intended to spend the money all at once. What it has enabled us to do is to experiment with initiatives and try things we wouldn’t ordinarily have done.”

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Schemes funded by the Portas money in Braintree to date include Christmas and Easter street fairs, a ‘Love your market’ project where new businesses are given an opportunity to run market stalls and a pop-up shop offering start-up businesses temporary shop space and reduced rent.

But more importantly, according to Ms Storey, spurred by the Portas success, the retail and business community are working much closer together than before. A key example of this is a monthly breakfast meeting for traders where they can brainstorm ideas, which regularly attracts around 30 people from independent store and national chains.

She added: “One of the things Mary Portas highlighted in her report is the need for togetherness in the town.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you put in - you need buy-in from the community. Money helps make things happen - but you need buy-in for it to be sustainable”.