Think tank blames ‘clone towns’ on poor regeneration efforts
The proliferation of chain stores across the country is turning the UK into a series of ‘clone towns’, The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has warned. It said local stores are being driven out of towns as chains ‘spring up like weeds’.
Regeneration and planning decisions have created a retail environment hostile to small, independent businesses, the NEF argued. It has asked the public to take part in a nationwide survey of town centres.
In its report, Clone Town Britain, the NEF says that once distinctive towns are now losing their character.
They want to find out how small businesses are faring in the modern marketplace and have asked members of the public to take pictures of the most ‘cloned’ parts of their towns – the results will be published next year.
‘Outside a few metropolitan hotspots we are moving from ‘Cool Britannia’ to ‘Clone Town Britain’,’ said NEF policy director Andrew Simms.
Research by the NEF suggests that between 1997 and 2002, specialist stores like butchers, bakers and fishmongers shut at the rate of 50 a week.
Also, nearly a thousand communities were left without access to a local bank and 20 traditional pubs were closing every month. It claims that the result is a loss of choice for consumers, with identikit stores popping up in town centres.
The think tank’s policy director Andrew Simms told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Local shops tend to act like the social glue that holds communities together in a way that big retail giants can’t.
‘Clone town Britain kind of creeps up on you – suddenly you turn round and your town is looking the same as every other town.’
The think tank also says that the increasing trend toward small scale ‘metro’ or ‘express’ versions of big supermarkets are squeezing distinctive local shops out of the market – leaving shoppers no choices when it comes to shopping.
Mr Simms also said that chain stores have ‘the marketing budgets, political contacts and resources’ that gives them an advantage over local shops.
But, also speaking on the Today programme, Sean Rickard, from the Cranfield School of Management, said that supermarkets serve the community.
‘The truth of the matter is that supermarkets offer a much greater choice. There are many people in this country – people who find it difficult to make ends meet – who choose a cheaper convenient alternative. If supermarkets have grown big it’s by the choices made by individuals – not by anyone forcing anyone through their doors,’ he said.
In a sample of random towns and cities the NEF found several which had achieved clone status – such as Guildford in Surrey, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Gloucester.
The report also suggests that behind the increasing homogenisation of the high street are wider trends destroying diversity in arts and culture.
Sheila Terry, the town manager of Birkenhead, which is criticised in the report, told BBC News 24: ‘National stores are very important. We need those because that’s what people expect when people come into the town. But in Birkenhead we’ve still got over 45 individual businesses, which makes us very special.’
Attack of the clone towns
The report says: ‘Many town centres that have undergone substantial regeneration have even lost the distinctive facades of their high street, as local building materials have been swapped in favour of identical glass, steel and concrete storefront that provide the ideal degree of sterility to house a string of big, clone town retailers.
‘The assault on the character of town centres has been aided by planning and regeneration decisions that have drawn shoppers away from the high street and created a retail infrastructure hostile to small, independent businesses.’
Guildford and Gloucester are damned in the report as ‘clone towns’ with little to recommend them. And it says that’ Ashford has outgrown itself and has little more identity than its status as a Eurostar Terminal’. But some places have survived the tide of blandness and banality, says the report. Lewes, in East Sussex, and Bangor, in the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales, are praised for retaining their air of individuality.
The NEF recommends intervention to stem corporate creep. It says that communities should be able to ban chains from corning to their high street. It adds that small retailers should be given rate relief, and that competition policy – which prevents monopolies on a national level – should be applied locally to prevent abuse of the market by the major corporates.
British Urban Regeneration Association research manager Simon Burwood said the ODPM would ‘be wise’ to look into the recommendations. He added that planners often thought the best way to compete with neighbouring towns was to replicate them. ‘It’s almost like keeping up with the Jones’s,’ he said.
Clone Town Britain is available at www.neweconomics.org
To take part in the survey, visit the same website.
Sources: BBC; Regeneration magazine; NEF