Video: Retail heaven or hell as Mary Portas visits Rotherham

SHE is known for her forthright opinions, and her TV programmes which take shopkeepers to task with a no-nonsense approach to selling have won her millions of fans – the Prime Minister among them.

In fact, Mary Portas, better known as Mary Queen of Shops, was appointed the Government’s retail czar earlier this year by David Cameron, and yesterday she came to Yorkshire on a fact-finding mission.

The rise of Ms Portas, who as a Harvey Nichols director helped launch the Leeds store, has been applauded and derided in equal measure, and her take-no-prisoners approach received mixed reviews in Rotherham.

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Critics claim that she is little more than window-dressing for a Government that wants to be seen supporting retail, but she said she would be making concrete proposals which would build real success.

After a whistle-stop tour, Ms Portas said Rotherham “looked good” despite the long-held belief that it had taken a hammering since the nearby Meadowhall shopping centre opened almost exactly 21 years ago,

She praised the local council for its approach to helping new enterprise and added: “I have seen a lot of new traders and they have been grateful to Rotherham Council for actually getting behind them.

“Some of the retailers I thought, honestly, were better than some in the heart of London, which I found astounding. The people who bash it the most are the people from Rotherham. I don’t understand that.

“I think that until we stop knocking this town and actually promoting it – because there is a future – then you are not going to change consumer habits.

“If people keep saying the town is on its knees and its all about out of town shopping then that’s how consumers will continue, because they will think, ‘I’ve got nothing to go there for’”.

The retail guru’s optimism was not shared by shoppers in the town, and many traders complained that Ms Portas had not stopped to talk as she and her entourage swept through the town’s high street.

Even the marketing director of West Yorkshire-based retail giant Poundworld Martyn Birks, in Rotherham preparing for the opening of a new store on Friday, said he had not received a promised visit.

Nicholas Appleyard, who runs a bread and cake stall in Rotherham market said: “She never stopped to talk to me, she just walked straight past. I could have given her a few ideas on how to improve things.”

Shopper Betty Hudson described Ms Portas’s task as “an impossible job” and added: “I have lived in town all my life. I’m 73 now and I have never seen the place look worse.

“Once she has had a real look round she’ll realise just how bad it is. She will never revive it.”

Ms Portas said she was not in Rotherham to “revive it”, and said she needed to have more discussion with the council to formulate proposals which will be published later.

She added: “We can always get hung up on what the moaners say, but that’s not what I would be doing. There are some towns across the country where it is over – the horse has bolted. This ain’t one of them.

“I’ve seen the town and I will be meeting with councillors now to say: What would have helped? How can we get this moving even quicker?

“What you have come from is a 27 per cent shop vacancy rate to 17 per cent -– that is damn unusual, 27 per cent is one of the worst you can get across the country and they have pulled that back by 10 per cent.

“That is in a very tough climate – what I’ll be asking the council is what things should I be proposing that would have made it more efficient and easier.”

Future of the high street in focus

Mary Portas was appointed to lead an “independent review into the future of the High Street” in May in a joint move announced by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

At the time, Mr Cameron said her involvement would “help us to create vibrant and diverse town centres and bring back the bustle to our high streets”.

According to her official biography, Ms Portas began her retail career as a Saturday girl in John Lewis and later worked as a window dresser at Harrods and Topshop.

She joined Harvey Nichols in 1989, leaving in 1997 and says she is “credited with transforming the brand into the world renowned store it is today”.

The Government said her review of the High Street will address the problem of vacant shops and the proliferation of “clone towns” and increase the number of small and independent retailers in town centres.

Ms Portas’ report is expected later this year.