YOUR local high street was once practically the only place to go shopping – and then only between 9am and 5.30pm, six days a week.

But consider some of the challenges that high street faces today.

Out-of-town retail parks with free parking. Supermarkets open 24 hours and selling an ever wider range of goods. Online shopping. And the small matter of hard economic times beyond anything experienced for generations.

Government research suggested yesterday that by 2014, less than 40 per cent of retail spending would be on the high street.

Retail expert Mary Portas has come up with 28 ideas for rejuvenating the high street after being asked by the government to look into the issue.

“We’ve got the internet, we've got these super out-of-town malls, we’ve got the hypermarkets, the supermarkets, and what we haven’t done, is we haven’t redefined what the high street is.”

She suggested there should be a greater mix of attractions in the high street, including gyms opening to “deliver a footfall and create more of a social hub”.

Tony Brown, chief executive of Bournemouth-based Beales, welcomed most of the Portas recommendations.

“I think she’s got most of it right. If you had a meeting in Bournemouth, you could probably cover all these in a meeting of the town traders’ association,” he said.

“There’s nothing new to what businesses have been asking local councils and government for over a long time.”

Portas is keen on business improvement districts (BIDs) – initiatives which see retailers take responsibility for managing and promoting retail areas, with the help of a levy on top of business rates.

Bournemouth has two of these in the pipeline. Mr Brown chairs the steering board for the town centre BID plan, and the second covers the town’s coastal districts.

There are some elements of the Portas plans which concern him, including proposals for disincentives to prevent landlords leaving shops empty.

And he gives a cautious welcome to Portas’ idea of a national market day. “I think that’s good providing they’re regulated. You don’t just want any old tat turning up,” he added.

He believes one of the key challenges is the free parking offered by out-of-town centres. He doesn’t expect councils or private companies to give up the income they receive from town centre parking, but thinks the retail parks should be made to charge as well.

Nigel Hedges, president of Bournemouth Chamber of Trade, also welcomed most of the recommendations but is unsure about markets. “You start sticking stalls in front of long established businesses that are paying business rates 365 days a year – you’ve got to be careful not to start picking off their customers,” he says.

He says the outlook for Bournemouth is good. “One major international coffee chain regards Bournemouth as a three-store town. That’s the equivalent of five-star, hot spot trading,” he said.

Martin Tidd, a director of Wimborne’s BID, says business in his town is also looking good. The arrival of Waitrose on the edge of town – a development that split traders – has helped, he insists.

“We’ve got a number of businesses which are seeing Wimborne as an attractive place to do business. Shops which become empty are filling up relatively quickly,” he said.

He believes the money BIDs receive from levies should be matched by a share of the cash already collected from business rates.

For retailers themselves, there are ever more challenges.

Mark Bennett of Bennetts Bakers, a local family-run business established 65 years ago, says trading conditions are more difficult than ever.

“Every day prices seem to go up – whether it’s the price of flour, petrol, gas, electricity or car parking charges. People aren’t allowed to park in many of the suburbs now so how do they expect people to be able to park and shop?” he says.

Ian Cracknell, who runs sportswear shop Workout of Westbourne, says it’s the way they do business that has changed.

“You just can’t predict how business will be as it varies from week to week. We no longer buy bulk orders for the season now. We have less stock and just top up as and when we need it,” he says.

“It is tougher now but it means you just have to work harder at getting people through the door. We are also developing our online site which is almost like a separate store.

“I think the high street will survive. It may be that we are more protected than other high streets because there are a lot of independent stores here, but we still have to do more to promote Westbourne as a place to shop.”

Steve Taylor, director of Fab Frocks of Westbourne, is backing the coastal district BID plans.

“Mary Portas is an experienced retailer and has highlighted what many retailers already know: the landscape of retailing is changing,” he says.

“What we need now is unity and for local authorities, landlords and businesses to work together for the prosperity of their area. Everyone is under pressure but by pooling resources and not hiding behind shop doors, businesses can make a real difference and take ownership of problems in the street outside.

“Independent businesses are an important mix on the high street and add diversity against a carbon copy of retail brands.”

Tony Brown thinks the signs are positive. “If you’re looking forward four or five years, I think Bournemouth has got a heck of a future, but we have to start doing it.”

John Grinnell, centre manager at Poole’s Dolphin Centre, said the report was “like a breath of fresh air for the retail sector in this country”.

“High streets up and down the country are suffering due to many factors, whether it be the financial climate, the increase of internet shopping or general changes to shopping habits. It is really positive to have someone so dedicated to saving the face of the town centre, in such a public and government backed manner,” he said.

“After reading her report I agree passionately about a number of her points including the need to address car parking prices and the task to clean up the nation’s public car parks, therefore making them safer, affordable and appealing places to park whilst shopping.

“A serious consideration is the access into the town centre during shop opening hours and ensuring this is as easy as possible for customers. Looking more closely at the retail mix in town centres and in particular more leisure offerings is imperative,” he added.

What Mary Portas recommends

Some of Mary Portas’s 28 recommendations:

• Reducing restrictions on traders, including the existing limits on night-time deliveries.

• Putting in place “town teams” – visionary management teams for high streets.

• Empowering successful Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) to take on more responsibilities and become “super-BIDs”.

• Introducing a national market day to drive people to town centres.

• Relaxing licensing rules for market stalls to allow more people to set up stands.

• Requiring secretary of state approval for any new out-of-town developments.

• Asking retailers to report on their support of high streets in their annual reports.

• Exploring the use of disincentives to stop landlords leaving units vacant.

• Supporting imaginative use of empty properties through a “community right to buy”.

• Running a number of high street pilot projects.

View all 28 recommendations here

Grass roots involvement needed

THE high street needs to get organised and involved at a grass roots level.

That’s been the consistent message from Bournemouth’s Chamber of Trade.

The chamber has promoted local affiliations in places like Westbourne, Pokesdown and Charminster.

And the success stories that get fed back are based on traders organising things for themselves.

The December meeting heard how Pokesdown traders and residents organised a late night shopping event that cost £10 to set up – and attracted more than 2,000 people.

Caroline Reed from the Tattoo Parlour said it had previously taken them “years” to get a bin outside the train station.

She said: “What’s working for Pokesdown is that it’s driven by the residents. We are listening to what they want.”

The meeting heard how Lesley Stephenson, a head of the active Charminster traders group, attends the area’s residents’ meetings.

And Mark Cribb from Boscombe’s Urban Beach hotel also updated the meeting on progress in the area, partly driven by the regeneration group Barg, which has very active members from the business community.