North Walsham, Aylsham, Thetford, Wisbech, Diss, Halesworth, Lowestoft and Southwold enter race to become a Mary Portas Pilot Town

Towns across Norfolk and Suffolk are vying for a share of �1m in a pilot scheme led by retail-guru Mary Portas to halt store closures and bring new vigour to high streets.

Eight communities - North Walsham, Aylsham, Thetford, Wisbech, Diss, Halesworth, Lowestoft and Southwold - have so far entered bids to become one of 12 Portas Pilot Towns across England.

If successful, they could secure up to �100,000 to test the ideas of Ms Portas, who has joined forces with the government to spearhead a campaign to help high streets amid increased competition from internet shopping and out-of-town developments.

Towns in the East have revealed their need to improve infrastructure, boost regeneration and attract more shoppers if they are to stop shops disappearing from their high streets.

It comes as a new report reveals a grim picture for retailers across the UK, with the monthly shop vacancy rate rising to 14.6pc in February - the highest recorded by the Local Data Company since its index began in 2008.

Matthew Hopkinson, director at the Local Data Company, said: 'The latest increase is not unexpected as post Christmas occupancy levels have dropped and retailer failures have continued, with the Game Group and its 600 shops being the latest to fail.

'It is a timely reminder to the government, who are due to respond to the Portas Review this month, of the significant challenges facing town and city centres up and down the country.'

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The government asked Ms Portas to investigate the state of English high streets and she published her review in December.

It made a number of recommendations for local authorities and businesses to administer a shot in the arm to shopping areas facing a declining footfall.

In order to become a Portas Pilot Town, the applicants have to demonstrate they can carry out these recommendations by creating a Town Team made up of members of the community.

Speaking about the Portas Pilot Scheme, local government minister Grant Shapps said: 'Our high streets have faced stiff competition from internet shopping, and out-of-town shopping centres leaving them underused, unloved and under valued.'

The government is searching for a mix of pilot areas including market towns, villages, large towns, new towns, coastal towns and suburban areas.

The closing date for applications, together with a supporting video, is this Friday.

Successful bids are expected to be announced in May.

• The Lowestoft bid

Retail leaders are stepping up their campaign to attract more shoppers and visitors to Lowestoft with their bid for the �1m Mary Portas scheme.

A new Lowestoft Town Team has been established to drive the bid, which has won the support of Waveney District Council and Waveney MP Peter Aldous.

The news comes only three weeks after it was revealed that business leaders were launching a new campaign for a Business Improvement District (BID) in Lowestoft.

However, its backers say this initiative 'will complement and run alongside' the Portas Pilot Bid in their efforts to promote and enhance the town.

Mr Aldous, who is a member of the town team, has written to the minister for local government, Grant Shapps, to promote Lowestoft's Portas Pilot Town bid.

He said: 'I am delighted to be part of the town team, which is submitting the bid and which has put together a carefully thought-through set of proposals that address the challenges that we face and also set out the vision for an exciting future.

'Being a Portas Pilot would raise Lowestoft's potential and would act as a catalyst for the town to realise its full potential, creating jobs and making the high street once again the hub of a vibrant and busy community.'

The Town Team says that, if successful, money secured from the pilot town scheme could be used to enhance the proposed Business Improvement District in Lowestoft and lead to: more proactive use of compulsory purchase order powers to bring key properties back into use; establishment of a mentoring scheme between the larger and smaller traders within the town; the introduction of town rangers; and work to find parking solutions.

Emma King, Lowestoft Town Centre Manager, added: 'Its very exciting for Lowestoft and will be a great achievement if we get it. The timing is perfect, too, as this will complement and run alongside the Business Improvement District (BID) through Lowestoft Vision.'

'Lowestoft is very lucky to have two such large opportunities to take part in and we look forward to working for a very bright future for our town.'

•The Southwold bid

Southwold will rejuvenate its high street and protect its 'vibrant hub' of independent businesses if its bid receives the green light from retail-guru Mary Portas.

A partnership of local organisations, businesses, landlords and authorities have teamed up in the town to stake their claim for a portion of the �1m cash pot.

The bid, led by Southwold and District Chamber of Trade and Commerce, will seek ideas from local people and create a 'town team' to develop a fresh approach to the way the high street is managed.

Meanwhile, small businesses will be given consultancy workshops by entrepreneur and London College of Fashion lecturer Catherine Fuller who runs the Southwold-based lingerie brand Outrageous Fortune.

Guy Mitchell, chairman of Southwold and District Chamber of Trade, said: 'This is a fantastic opportunity for everyone in the town to come together to ensure Southwold's high street remains a vibrant hub serving local people and visitors. Southwold as a town is full of character and we are very lucky, but without action we risk becoming like any other town centre with the same national chain stores.

'We want to promote independence and keep it different. As chairman of the chamber of trade, we are on the verge of launching our loyalty cards, which encourage people to buy at the independent shops in Southwold, and we want to promote our market days and make it easier for local artists and craftsman to sell their wares.

'People may look at Southwold as a prosperous town that doesn't need support, but we are looking at this bid as preventative medicine because without taking action, and by becoming complacent, we will become like any other high street.'

The partnership, led by the chamber of trade, includes the Southwold and Reydon Society, Suffolk County Council, Southwold Town Council, Waveney District Council, Reydon Civic Society and entrepreneur Mrs Fuller.

They are encouraging people to back the bid by submitting their ideas to or by filling out a form while shopping at business displaying the Back the Bid symbol.

•The Wisbech bid

The Wisbech town team has held its final meeting before submitting a bid and has refined some of its initial ideas to ensure the best chance of success.

It is concentrating on regenerating derelict buildings, the market place and the appointment of a town centre manager as its Portas priorities. Among the ideas to be submitted will be the modification of an existing empty retail building for use by a local start-up group or micro business. The team would like to hear from local businesses that might be interested in becoming part of the project. There is also an appeal for anyone who could help by making a short amateur video to accompany the Portas bid. The team is also proposing new uses for the market place to attract people to the town centre during the day and in the evenings.

Members also see the appointment of a town-centre manager as a crucial step forward to aid the regeneration of Wisbech and the management of future projects.

MP Stephen Barclay and Wisbech Town Council are among those who have already written in with their support for the team and every letter or email received will boost the chance of success. The next town team meeting is at 7pm on Wednesday, April 11, with the venue to be announced.

The town team was formed after a meeting set up by Jaqui Fairfax, chairman of the Fenland Chamber of Commerce, saw more than 50 people discuss the bid for a town team pilot scheme. She asked people to come up with their top three suggestions for Wisbech.

Traders and residents spoke positively about Wisbech's multicultarlism and it was agreed any bid should hinge on this while also looking to exploit the artistic side of the town.

Anyone who would like to register their support is being asked to send it care of the town council at North Brink, Wisbech PE13 1JR or to email by Wednesday.

•The Thetford bid

A group is hoping to breathe new life into Thetford town centre by buying redundant shops and buildings, with the possibility of help from Queen of Shops' Mary Portas.

The School of Radical Thought in Thetford (Sort It), made up of 16 public figures, including town councillors and business owners, hopes to take ownership of the town by selling shares and using the money to buy redundant shops and buildings.

To get the idea off the ground, Sort It, which was recently registered as a development trust, has submitted an application to become a Portas Pilot.

People are now encouraged to become members by buying a share for as little as �5 per year, or �25 for corporate membership or voluntary or community groups.

Project co-ordinator for Sort It, David Brooks, said; 'We have already had many people coming in requesting membership forms and wanting to pledge their support for what we want to do.

'This really is about local people working together to improve the high street and we intend to continue working hard even if we are not successful with the Portas application.'

•The North Walsham and Alysham bid

North Walsham was in buoyant mood as the town launched its bid for a share of the Portas pot by 'levitating a lady' in the Market Place.

A crowd gathered to watch North Walsham resident and professional magician Roy Davenport 'float' school science technician Holly Jacobs in front of their very eyes.

Town mayor Vivenne Uprichard said the stunt was aimed at creating a bit of a buzz around the bid.

She hoped the town would receive up to �100,000, which would be used to appoint an events manager who would organise a succession of historical, musical, dramatic, artistic and other entertainments in the town.

'It will improve life for residents and draw in more tourists to north Norfolk's largest town which is at the heart of north Norfolk,' said Mrs Uprichard.

Students from North Walsham High School and Paston College filmed the illusion and interviewed shoppers who had gathered to watch, for a supporting film on the bid which will be placed on YouTube.

Market-town neighbour Aylsham is also competing for the Portas pennies.

A warts-and-all commissioned Urban Delivery report on Aylsham's strengths and weaknesses highlighted possible improvement projects which town leaders would like to see realised.

They include attracting a petrol filling station to the town, improving road gateways with better signs and landscaping, and creating cycle routes to National Trust stately homes Blickling Hall and Felbrigg Hall.

Jo Cottingham, Broadland District Councillor for Aylsham, hopes the schemes would attract more people and jobs to the town.

• The Halesworth bid

The group behind a bid to revitalise Halesworth havs come up with a wide range of ideas to help secure a share of a one million pound fund – but they're keeping them all close their chests.

The Halesworth Town Centre Group is driving the town's bid for money from the Portas Pilot Town scheme, but with other towns across Suffolk chasing the funding, members are keeping their ideas to themselves, for now.

Laura Churchill, who is leading the bid, said: 'It is going really well. We have had lots of support from local businesses and traders and some great support from Waveney District Council, Halesworth Town Council, and the Halesworth and Blyth Valley partnership.'

On Wednesday, members of the bid joined together to go through initial ideas as they put together their application form.

They are hoping to present their ideas to the town in a public meeting at The Cut on tomorrow at 6pm.

Mrs Churchill, who runs Bluebird Vintage, in Bridge Street, said that with a range of other towns applying for the money, including Lowestoft, and a joint bid from Framlingham, Leiston, Aldeburgh and Saxmundham, their group is keeping their ideas close to their chests.

She said: 'Those helping us have been very impressed; we really have got some great ideas to turn Halesworth into a destination location and improve certain parts of the town.'

She added that the whole scheme had been a good exercise for uniting the town to see what they could do to help promote the town.

'I think Halesworth is very unique. We are not dominated by one big retailer; we are a place for quality local produce and want to become a sustainable town,' she said.

'We want people to come not just to shop but for the whole experience of a market town, and we are the epitome of a British market town.'

•The Diss bid

A campaign team bidding for up to �100,000 funding from Mary Portas, Queen of Shops, has issued an urgent appeal to local businesses to show their support by Thursday

The Diss Town Team, which has put together a Disscover business plan to make the town more attractive, is also looking for volunteers to help win the RHS Britain in Bloom competition.

Town clerk Deborah Sarson, a member of the team, said the proposals were well-supported at a meeting in the Corn Hall, where Oliver Chapman, a partner at estate agents T W Gaze, presented a vision for the town.

She added: 'It's really exciting and the momentum is fantastic, but we need a big stack of letters with letterheads from businesses supporting the proposals.'

Among the ideas so far is the creation of a wildlife corridor along Mere Street using planters full of wildflowers, dressing up empty shop fronts to promote the Diss Heritage Triangle (the area between the Corn Hall, St Mary's Church and the market place), and encouraging shopkeepers to sign up to a charter to keep the street outside their shops tidy, make their windows interesting and keep flower displays watered.

'In many cases, it is the little things which will make a big difference,' added Mrs Sarson.

She also suggested charity shops could offer a small area where young people could display and sell their own products.

Anyone with ideas can stick them on to a cutout of Mary Portas which is going round Diss, call Mr Chapman on 01379 650468 or email

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