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Retail guru Portas bristles over call for social housing in vacant shops and offices

Turning empty shops and office spaces into social housing could be one radical way to regenerate the ailing high street.

That's the claim from Westminster Planning Minister Nick Boles, much to the annoyance of retail guru Mary Portas. She was hired by Prime Minister David Cameron to inject new life into the UK high street.

Her key recommendations – including cutting business rates and stopping the development of new shopping centres – were both rejected.

And Portas urged councils not to take the "easy option" of converting disused high street shops into housing.

Addressing the theory that the UK high street has passed its heyday, Mr Boles said: "People's shopping habits are changing very fast as a result of the rise in internet shopping and changes in lifestyles and working patterns.

"We need to think creatively about how to help town centres thrive in this new era.

"We want to encourage local councils to concentrate retail activity into the prime shopping streets in the heart of their town centres and adopt a more relaxed approach to under-used retail frontages." Portas is a strong supporter of small retailers and after writing a report on the state of the UK high street, was allocated £1.2m of taxpayer cash to regenerate high streets in 12 towns.

She was challenged when the decision came through to build a new Tesco on Margate sea-front, one of the pilot towns, and was overruled by Tory Eric Pickles, a supporter of the Margate scheme.

Earlier this year, a chocolatier working in George Osborne's constituency of Tatton was forced to close his flagship store after running costs soared.

Simon Dunn, on a "good" week, was left with a £100 profit. He said: "Before long all that will be left on the British high street is Tesco, Costa and charity shops – it's just impossible for people like me to keep our heads above the water.

"The sad part of it is that we're not the only business that's having to do this. It's a national problem that is affecting every high street."

Belfast Telegraph