The Portas Review: An anthropological reading.

December 16, 2011

Just this week [12.12.2011] celebrity retail analyst Mary Portas published UK government sponsored report entitled “The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets” outlining 28 key recommendations and suggesting ideas for the future of the UK high street.  The report has attracted a large amount of interest in the press and reflects wider discussions on high streets and the associated issues of ‘localness’ ‘community’ and an interesting collection of values, morals and ways of thinking about high streets and the social relations they engender.

Through my work with the Adaptable Suburbs team at UCL I have a keen interest in the historical development and changes in the spaces of the Suburbs and in particular the built environment of the ‘high street’ and its land uses.  The Portas Report provides a rich reading for an anthropologist interested in the phenomenon of the high street and its associated notions of neighbourhood, its values etc. and in this post I pull out some of the ways in which I read the document.

My reading can be categorised into two sections, firstly the social values, morals and orderings of these spaces and associated practices and their entanglement with wider discourses of identity.  Secondly how this ordering is either maintained or restored in response to perceived threats through practical measures that reflect both a ordering of social and moral values and an ideological position that could be referred to as post-political [i].

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Despite a number of declarative statements about the report not being about nostalgia there is a layering of a yearning to return to some notion of community, place, localness, perhaps not like days of ‘butcher baker and candle stick maker’ but to locally focused economy and specialist and personalised services.  From the outset the report declares that it is about ‘Our’ high street, that are ‘spaces which….people make their own’ (p46),  ‘people and place come first’ (p31) that there is some sense of public ownership in these spaces.  Portas invokes an idea that people are willing to ‘fight’ for, are enthusiastic about, and care for such spaces and that we have “sacrificed our communities for convenience” in light of internet and supermarket based shopping and service delivery, describing them as ‘key threats’. The report states that the high street is in a ‘dire state’ and that we have seen a loss of ‘street trust’, a sense of belonging and yet people care deeply for the high street and the appetite to fight for the high street is strong.  Throughout the report and surrounding publicity bodily metaphors are used frequently, the high street is said to need life ‘breathed’ into it and its heart putting back through ‘local people’ (p37, 44, 45).

Portas equates the shift in retail practices to a ‘radical and profound shift in our values’ (p13) and asserts the role of the high street in maintaining a sense of belonging, community and maintain social capital.  She asserts that the high street is about “so much more than shopping” (p44) and that the high street should serve community needs.

The above shows how such ideas of community here are based in a particular idea of place;- of the high street that maintains a sense of communal value and way of life that the place of the internet, the supermarket apparently cannot.  Local produce is valued for economic and ecological reasons relating to an idea of sustainability and stable socio-environmental systems and community needs and a ‘sense of belonging’ works through spaces that the high street is able to deliver.  Clearly the report is designed to preserve and boost the high street in its ability to maintain the work it does in these orderings and understanding of such categories.  Through a serious of re-thinking of the spatial practices the high street encourages, supports and engenders and a number of bureaucratic measures Portas outlines 28 recommendations for the high streets.

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The report suggests a number of measures including setting up town teams that will run the high street ‘like a business’ and develop strategic local plans.  Local histories and pride are conceived as selling points and building blocks for a type of space different to the ‘general’ experience of the supermarket. She requests more considerate planning in regard to the perceived threats of out of town shopping centres and supermarkets and wants to free up parking spaces and empty buildings so that they can be used by small businesses and costumers without large bureaucratic or capital obstacles.  She talks with business like efficiency about social capital and how the civic pride and goodwill of local people of local people is essential to maintaining high streets.  She invokes the recent Localism Act in stressing that local people should have control of the resourses around them and encourages creative and community-based use of spaces such as second floor building space and market halls.  Many of the recommendations follow case studies of best practice or exist elsewhere already but my aim here is not to run through them in terms of their effectiveness and impact but rather to reflect on them in regard to what they do in relation the above assertion of the way in which the high street is a conduit of categories of identity, neighbourhood and whose spaces engender a becoming of a particular place with its associated values.

These measures clearly aim to assert the high street as a place that needs to be maintained against a danger of their decline in the face of a threat of changing spatial practices born out of convenience.  The mechanism of doing that is a re-ordering of bureaucratic measures and policy to ensure that town centres become central to priorities. Social relations and healthy community is premised here not only on particular spaces but on particular ways of managing spaces.  This management takes the form of shaping and influencing the retail practices and flows of capital which is seen as key to social relations and current understandings of positive social values.  The bodily metaphors indicate a relation to the spaces of the high street as something that holds life, has lungs and a heart and that people care about.  The resulting media responses may differ in their agreement on the minor issues of policy of such things as the category of betting shops to the large ideological differences that come about in discussions over ownership of community resources and the use of the localism act.

However, anthropologically, the report and the resulting attention demonstrate the extent to which social relations in everyday British life work around, through and with the spaces of the everyday such as the high street, the supermarket and the betting shop.  The ‘crisis’ – the panic and decline in the state of the high street – has resulted in considerable government resources and press attention with a ‘minister for shops’ a possibility and much debate occurring over what to do with the high street.  Few if any commentators have considered the impact of directing such resources to a form of social relation measured through such spaces and practices.  What are the historical conditions for these social relations, for ideas of localness and the social values that occur through these spaces?  What does it mean to maintain social relations through a strong correlation to retail practices, the high street and so on?  What might supermarkets, global flows of food, money and the internet do to these orderings and what might the range of possible futures be?

With a critical analysis of the changes in the spaces of the high street, the understanding of what the high street does in terms of social relations and a developed historical context it might be possible to not only to discuss what people might do maintain high streets or if we should have them at all but further to ask in what ways and through what spatial practices do we wish to construct our social relations.  We need to ask what are the current ways of understanding social relations and where we place the emphasis for action and change does, but also: who is it for and who is left out?  With such critical insights we may be better placed to develop understandings of social relations that move beyond reductionist ideas of ‘consumer society’, and readings of events such as the recent riots and the ‘decline’ of the High Street and postulate a position in which we might be able to discuss real ways to alternative and progressive futures in which our discussions around the spaces of our everyday social relations offer real progressive futures in how to shape the spaces in which we live our social relations.

This post was first publish on http://spatialdisjunctures.wordpress.com/ by the same author on 16.12.2011.


[i] See the works of Mouff, Laclau, Zizek, and so on

Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. London, Verso.

Mouffe, C. (2005). On The Political. London, Routledge.

Žižek, S. (1999a). Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics. The Challenge of Carl Schmitt. C. Mouffe. London, Verso: 18-37.

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