‘Portas Pliots’ – a scheme to rejuvenate the country’s high streets, championed by none other than Mary Portas. Yet Altrincham isn't going to be one of them...
David Cameron commissioned TV fashionista Mary Portas to recommend British towns to receive a make-over and an investment of up to £100,000.
Portas and Local Government Minister, Grant Shapps, launched the competition that gave 12 towns what they called a ‘golden ticket’ – the chance to become a Portas Pilot.
Each pilot town will benefit from Portas’ creative input into the rejuvenation of the area and, of course, the all-important funding.
But shop owners in Altrincham were left disappointed by the news that England’s emptiest high street will not become one of the first Mary Portas pilot towns.
More than 370 areas applied to be part of the government scheme and Altrincham was among those overlooked, with Stockport being chosen as the town to be reviewed in Greater Manchester.
Two years ago the area was branded ‘Ghost Town UK’ after the results of a survey showed that 30.04% of its shops stand empty.
Mr Shapps believes it is internet shopping and out-of-town malls have left so many British high streets like Altrincham ‘underused, unloved and under-valued’.
“The internet is not going to go away, and so for our high streets to survive they need to offer something new and exciting,” he said.
Independent shops have been hit particularly hard by the internet shopping revolution, as well as the growth in high street chains who use are able to use cheap, imported labour and materials.
Ceri Challinor, 22, owner of independent fashion outlet, Jam, set up her business with partner Danielle Ray, 21 in September 2011.
She said: “Chain stores dominate the high street and leave very little room for little shops like ours.
“They are able to use extremely cheap materials but set the prices disproportionately high because of the enormous scale of production.
“Internet shopping makes it much easier for people just to stay and home and order from those kind of huge chain stores. People can’t be bothered to look around little independent places anymore.”
Miss Chanilor believes that another upside to the Portas Pilots is that it should encourage more business to use British materials when possible.
She said: “The price of labour and cotton is all going up so why not bring the business back to the UK? Mary Portas’ input should be great for Britain, especially the fashion industry.”
Portas has long been an advocate of bringing production and labour back to Britain.
In January The Queen of Shops was spotted encouraging an Altrincham vintage market organiser on Twitter.
Gail Titchener, organiser of The Sunday Vintage and Craft Market in Altrincham sent porter a message on twitter, promoting the event.
The retail guru responded with: "Brilliant! Good luck with it. Wish I was nearer to visit. I will retweet x m."
The encouraging tweet inspired hope for Altrincham’s chances in the Portas scheme.
But now business owners in the area believe that being overlooked for the funding could be the final nail in the coffin for the high street.
Newsagent, David James, said: “It’s been very quiet on the high street for the years I’ve worked here.
“The town centre needs help from the government. The Portas scheme probably would have really boosted the area.”
Another shopkeeper added: “There’s just too many empty units on the high street. It puts people off.”
However, rather than give into the doom and gloom, the rejection from the scheme seems to have forced campaigners and councillors to take matters into their own hands.
Terry O'Brien, the Chairman of the Stretford Town Centre Partnership, released a statement on Trafford Council website shortly after the announcement.
"It is disappointing to hear that this first bid was unsuccessful,” he said.
“There is a lot of potential to improve the town centre and we must look forward and keep striving to achieve our ambitions."
This renewed vigour to revitalise the town has come in the form of a new think tank – Altrincham Forward – launched to secure the long-term prosperity of the town.
The group includes Chris Oglesby, chief executive of property group Bruntwood, Nick Johnson, deputy CEO of Urban Splash and chairman of Marketing Manchester, Ask Developments' managing director Ken Knott and Mike Shields, a former chief executive of the Northwest Regional Development Agency.
They will work with representatives from local businesses, community organisations and Trafford council to develop a strategy to ensure Altrincham's future prosperity.
Chair of Altrincham Forward and Leader of Trafford Borough Council, Matt Colledge said: “Vacant shop units, tired streets and market and the lack of a whole town approach have meant that Altrincham is no longer the pride of its local community.”
The group collected and analysed evidence to understand why this is and created a booklet, outlining plans to create a more vibrant town, which will be publically distributed next week.
The organization intends to bring in funding from other sources outside the Portas scheme.
Lead officer for Altrincham, Helen France, said the Altrincham Forward Board is defiant in the face of rejection from the programme.
She said: “We are not viewing not being selected as a Portas Pilot as a set back.
“We have plans for the town centre and will use the £100k from the High Street Innovation fund to help to improve the heart of the town.
“These will all ahead without us becoming a Portas pilot.”
The council may be hard pressed to convince local business owners that the outlook is bright for Altrincham.
But if they continue to approach the matter with enthusiasm and determination the town might stand a chance of finally escaping its reputation as the UK’s Ghost Town.