TV Queen of Shops Mary Portas toured Rotherham as part of her project to see how the nation’s town centres can be improved - but has come under fire for not speaking to traders or shoppers while on the streets.
The retail consultant, carrying out a study for the Government, went for a walkabout in the South Yorkshire town with an entourage of journalists and officials but did not stop to talk to people who work and shop there.
Rotherham, which is suffering from a high level of vacant shops due to competition from Parkgate Retail World and Meadowhall, is the third place the BBC2 and Channel 4 star has visited after Rugby and Sparkbrook, in the West Midlands.
During her tour, Mary discussed the state of the town centre environment, pointing out how beautiful old buildings have been neglected and spoilt by gaudy shop fronts - and said planners and retailers should ensure attractive buildings are made more of a feature.
Looking at the branch of Greggs bakers, at the corner of Howard Street and Effingham Street - on the ground floor of the Old Town Hall Assembly Rooms, an old sandstone building with a stained glass window on the upper floors - she exclaimed: “Look at that building. Why stick that heinous sign up. It could be made so much more of.”
But she praised how Rotherham Council had removed an old fountain from outside the market hall, on Howard Street, to make the pedestrianised street more open and easy to walk along.
Mary, who toured Rotherham on market day when the town centre is busy, was surprised at how bustling it was.
“I thought it would be northern doom and gloom but there’s a lot of energy. I’m amazed at how busy it is,” she said.
Mary was also a fan of the town’s market.
She said: “Markets are a growth area. These are wonderful stalls - the little electrical trader, the place where you can have your shoes mended. In a lot of places, such traders are a thing of the past.”
Mary said that centres such as Rotherham need to make more of themselves by ‘thinking about what kind of shoppers they want to attract’ and making sure their shopping centre stands out, such as by promoting smaller, niche retailers or local market stalls which cannot be found at large shopping centres.
She also suggested making parking easier, simplifying planning rules for shopkeepers and attracting some big retailers.
After her tour of the town, Mary held a lunchtime meeting with councillors and hand-picked traders to discuss the town. She will use information gained from the visit as part of her study.