Dartford as a Portas Pilot 12 months on
PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 May 2013
Twelve months ago it was announced that Dartford was to become one of a dozen "Portas Pilot" towns nationwide and with the news came a glimmer of hope of reviving the high street.
The scheme was named after and devised by retail guru Mary Portas and the government had cash to give away to regenerate town centres, with Dartford receiving £80,000.
In February, the Portas Pilot scheme was criticised when it was revealed £1,600 was spent hiring a Peppa Pig character to stand in the high street to launch the Sunday market.
Dartford Council leader Cllr Jeremy Kite defended the move and says the town team, set up to allocate Portas Pilot spending, is investing the cash wisely.
“I appreciate the Peppa Pig decision was ridiculed. But the idea was to open up Sunday trading with a big family day.
“Having £80,000 is not enough to completely turn around a struggling high street. If the award had been £8million we’d have wanted to spend all of it.”
Just over a third of the £79,500 sum has been spent by the town team so far– £28,098.13 in total.
A community shop has been established with money for bursaries to help market stalls get going.
A total of £3,910 was spent on three appearances by children’s characters Peppa Pig, Fireman Sam and Mike the Knight.
Who is Mary Portas?
A 52-year-old retail expert, Mary Portas was appointed by prime minister David Cameron to lead a review into the future of Britain’s high streets in May 2011.
She started her career in retail with a Saturday job in John Lewis in Watford.
Her first television series, Mary Queen of Shops, was broadcast in May 2007.
Miss Portas regularly appears at conventions and has spoken alongside people as diverse as the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and the Dalai Lama.
Other purchases include £1,235 on furniture for the community shop, £7,439 on advertising and £1,183 on 10,000 carrier bags for traders.
The first market beneficiary was 26-year-old Dartford native James Cobley, who opened his Newsstand Comic stall in Dartford Market 14 weeks ago.
He said: ”The help I received was invaluable. It’s paying rent for the first three months, and equipment -and insurance.
“I was given £1,000 and I don’t think it would have been possible without the bursary.”
Portas Pilot towns
Dartford is one of 12 Portas Pilot towns. The others are: Bedford, Croydon, Greater Bedminster, Liskeard, Margate, Market Rasen, Nelson, Newbiggin by the Sea, Stockport, Stockton on Tees and Wolverhampton.
In total 371 towns submitted bids for Portas funding.
It is a government-led initiative to try and improve high streets across the country, and the 12-winning bids were chosen by Miss Portas and the then-Minister for Local Government, Grant Shapps.
But not everyone is convinced there has been a significant increase in footfall.
Hassan Nurhakli, manager of Kent Barbers on Hythe Street, just off High Street, says the town centre is still “very quiet” and worries more businesses will have to close.
“Someone has to do something and I don’t think this is the answer.
“You see the same people all the time, new customers aren’t coming. There’s no reason for people to come to Dartford with Bluewater nearby.”
Miss Portas visited Dartford for the first time at the end of last month to check on progress and her main concern was the boarded up Lowfield Street – still awaiting the start of building work by Tesco. She called on the supermarket giant to “get going or get out”, echoing words of Cllr Kite earlier this year.
He said: “We’ve banged away at them for years to get building or get out.
“Mary didn’t promise to solve everything, although the publicity she’s brought is a definite bonus.”
But comments on Twitter are decidedly mixed about Miss Portas’ impact.
Andrew Clark said: “The town centre hasn’t improved. Even @maryportas appears to have given up with no reply from Tesco. Time for the council to use Plan B, if there was one?”
Asked if becoming a Portas Pilot has made a difference, Dartford’s Labour Cllr Jonathan Hawkes said: “Most people I spoken to would say ‘no’. Very little visible change. Many still angry by lack of progress on Lowfield Street.”
The shop vacancy rate is down from this time last year – 30.8 per cent to 24.5 per cent – those behind the Portas scheme admit there is still work to do to make Dartford town centre thrive again.