If there's not one near you already, there will be soon, unfortunately: out-of-town superstores, their critics say, are strangling high streets and market towns. PETER POPHAM reports from Dorchester, where Prince Charles has joined forces with the devel...
If the Prince of Wales decides to get divorced, how will he pay for it? According to the citizens of Dorchester, the county town of Dorset which is surrounded on three sides by Duchy of Cornwall land, the answer lies in three new out-of-town superstores presently clambering skywards in the lee of Tesco and in the teeth of much local disquiet. Turning Duchy land over to the likes of Currys, Halfords and the Southern Electricity Board (renamed Powerhouse) is the quickest way, the gossip goes, to raise the pounds 4million the Prince will need to untie the knot.

This rumour is derided by the Duchy's chief executive, Jimmy James, who calls it "absolute rubbish", but it reflects certain hard truths. The Duchy, until recently the most conservatively agricultural of landlords, is changing tack, turning to surer sources of profit. One result is Poundbury, an estate of traditional houses on the west of Dorchester, planned by Leon Krier and overseen by the Prince, which is designed to provide more housing for Dorchester without damaging the town's character; another is the complex of superstores which is already tearing out the town's heart. On one side of the town is his much-trumpeted bid for architectural glory; on the other, his less publicised concession to the forces of commerce.

One of the most beautiful and historic towns in southern England, Dorchester has very few modern buildings, and the traditional reluctance of the Duchy of Cornwall to allow its farming land to be converted to other uses has allowed it to remain as pretty and as artificially small as a bonsai tree. It is, in other words, the last place that you would expect to find superstores. But here they are: in Dorchester, in the neighbouring town of Blandford Forum, and in other small and ancient market towns across Britain. And everywhere they spring up, they threaten to destroy the traditional town centre.

The explosive growth of superstores since the start of the Eighties is a case of Thatcherite liberalisation which has got badly out of hand. The stores were able to establish themselves due to the laissez-faire approach to planning of the Eighties. At the end of February, there were 997 food superstores throughout Britain, according to Verdict Research, the retail consultants; and, although the rate of growth is slowing down, the Department of the Environment says that a further 400 have been given planning permission and may be built in the next three years. "In an ideal world, everyone would be within reach of a superstore," says Richard Perks, a consultant with Verdict, "and that's the situation we're approaching. It's getting to the point that you can't open a superstore without competing with another one."

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, has warned of the dangers the stores pose. "We may need to discourage development on greenfield sites on the edge of cities, where it would result in an un-acceptable impact on a town centre," he has said. "We expect local authorities to act on [these messages]... The liveliness that we want to see in town centres cannot be achieved in an atmosphere of decline."

But there is a catch. His own ministry's planning policy guidance note, issued in 1993, forbids councils to refuse permission for out-of town stores unless there is "clear evidence" that they would "undermine the vitality and viability of town centres". This is plainly hard to prove, as Dorchester's coun-cillors have discovered to their, and their constituents', cost. Unnamed ministry officials admitted earlier this year that it's now too late for the Government to make a U-turn: the cost of compensating the supermarkets for having their planning permits revoked would be astronomical.

Clive Vaughan of Verdict Research maintains that the superstores give towns like Dorchester "the opportunity to enhance the town centre". He says that, in traditional town centres, people like to go from store to store, comparing price and availability. "Fashion, personal leisure, cosmetics - these are the sorts of things that do well in the high street." Most vulnerable to attack from the out-of-town superstore are a town's own established supermarkets: Dorchester has a large Waitrose near the middle of town, as well as the new Kwik-Save. But, even if these were to close down, Vaughan spots a silver lining. "Quite often a redundant supermarket can be broken up into smaller retail units."

For many key items on the shopping list, however - food, furniture, DIY, electrical goods - Vaughan sees no way back to the high street. There are too many advantages to the out-of-town locations, such as ease of distribution and parking, store size and low business rates. But he insists that even those traditional high streets "which were built by the Romans and have been tweaked ever since" can be turned into "much more attractive, comparative shopping centres".

That's all right if you are a city or major town with a big enough population to enable both out-of-town and high street shops to prosper. The argument falls on deaf ears among the retailers of market towns like Dorchester and nearby Blandford Forum and Bridport. In Blandford's centre, 25 per cent of shops are vacant. In Dorchester and Bridport, the situation is little better. Throughout the country, according to a DoE report earlier this year, only three per cent of market towns are thriving. The biodiversity of the high street is too fragile to withstand the onslaught of superstore monoculture.

We live in an ancient country but, even so, Dorchester has surprises to spring. St Peter's, the parish church, probably sits on the ruins of a Roman temple. The Antelope shopping precinct incorporates the pub which accommodated Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. A group of life-sized Elisabeth Frink bronzes on a street corner marks the spot where Roman Catholic martyrs were hanged, drawn and quartered in the 16th century. "The Walks", the promenade that girdles the town along the banks of the mill stream and through avenues of ancient trees, follows the line of the walls that first enclosed the town in about 300ad.

The 100 acres within the Walks still define the town's heart. Beyond them, to the south, Dorchester quickly fizzles out into leafy lanes of salubrious Edwardian houses, a couple of nursing homes, the cemetery, and the recreation ground, where schoolboys play ragged games of cricket in the howling May gale. Beyond that is an apparition, a mirage, a hologram - the twin clocktowers, the cupola, the steep russet roofs, the Norman arches going nowhere, the fountains and blinding car parks of Prince Charles's very own Tesco.

If the big supermarket chains have war rooms, their wall maps of Britain must by now be covered with little flags. Superstores have spread from the cities where they first appeared nearly 30 years ago into every corner of Britain. But the difference now is not merely one of size. Once, a supermarket was opened in a town for the people of the town. But, as Britain has become a country of motorway bypasses, the retailing concept has changed: now you put a superstore by a bypass in order to draw the people who live alongside it. What matters is no longer the ancient, rooted community but the new, mobile one; not the urban fabric but the road network. Looming at the edge of town, beyond cemetery and recreation ground, the super-store menaces the retailing heart of a town because it asserts a new principle of urban organisation where the car is king. In Dorchester, Tesco's crowded, glittering car park shows that the people are voting with their wheels. The for sale and to let signs festooning the empty properties in the old centre send the same message.

The story began in 1988, when West Dorset District Council received an application to build a food superstore to the south of Dorchester, just inside the new bypass. Tesco was given the green light in April 1990. "There were good planning reasons for the store," says John Lock, head of the planning committee. "We were advised that, because Dorchester is an old town, a food-only supermarket on the edge would not affect the viability of the core." One reason for this confidence was that a multinational, MECP, was simultaneously planning to develop a new shopping centre in the heart of the town; the two schemes seemed to balance out. The superstore also promised to ease traffic congestion in the middle of town. Tesco came in as the highest tenderer, and sweetened the deal by promising to build a spanking new stadium for the town's football team, the Magpies (which had previously played behind a rusty iron fence).

In 1991, the superstore and stadium were duly completed, to the satisfaction of the Duchy's architect, but the shopping centre planned for the middle of town evaporated in the recession. There was less traffic, but there were also fewer people, and the town began to wonder, as the first to let signs began appearing above whited-out shop windows, if congestion wasn't preferable after all.

The planning committee, however, remained sanguine, until another application was made in 1993 for permission to build three more huge stores on Duchy land. "We got angry about this," says John Lock. "We had intended to restrict the edge-of-town retailing to food." The committee refused permission, taking its cue from John Gummer's recent warnings about the dangers of out-of-town stores. And there the matter would have rested had the Duchy not appealed. Jimmy James blamed the refusal on vociferous vested local interests, and pointed out that the council's local officers had strongly recommended the scheme. "We took the view that the new stores would not suck trade out of Dorchester. On the contrary, Dorchester was losing trade to places like Weymouth, Poole and Yeovil, where such stores, selling things like electrical goods, have already been built."

Last September, the Duchy won the appeal, and, in a gesture of rebuke, the inspectors awarded costs against the local authority - a rap across the knuckles for overruling its officers (while attempting to keep in step with the sec-retary of state). Planning consent was granted, and three multiples with shops in the heart of town - Currys, Halfords and Powerhouse - grabbed for the leases.

What was surprising was how little local people seemed to care. "The town's shop- keepers haven't got an argument unless their customers are against the superstores," says Joyce Graham, who until recently, as head of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce, re- presented Dorchester's shopkeepers and had spearheaded the campaign against the new stores. "I tried to make it clear to the public what would happen if the stores went ahead, explaining that when you move stores out of town you get fewer people coming to the centre so you haven't got the impulse-buying which keeps shops afloat. I don't feel people realise that, in getting a superstore, they are also losing their corner shop and their local post office.

"It was all over the papers last year, there was a public enquiry, and nobody knew anything! If we'd managed to get some bums on seats at the enquiry, it might have been different. But nobody thinks they can do anything. Now they are building the stores, people say, 'What the hell's that? It's awful!' But people won't realise it's their problem until South Street is damaged."

In fact, South Street is already ailing. Dorchester's main shopping street, former lodging of Judge Jeffreys and home of Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge (his house is now a Barclays Bank), it is already beginning to resemble a mouth full of cavities. Dewhurst the Butcher and Fludes the carpet shop are gone; three stores are soon to decamp to the by-pass; seven new shops around the nearby Kwik-Save are as empty as the day they were built. Mid-morning on a sunny weekday, there are people on South Street, but it is comfortably - alarmingly - uncongested. And, like a house marked with the sign of the plague, the first charity shop, an Oxfam - inevitable precursor of retail ruin - has opened here.

"Of course the superstore's affected us," says Angela Lauder, who, with her husband Simon, runs Templeman Leather Goods, one of the few non-multiples left in the town. "Trade was static last year; this year it's down three to four per cent, which is unprecedented. A lot of people who used to come to town don't bother; they just crack past on the bypass. By the day something goes - last week it was my veggie man. Two of the arcades are nearly closed down."

Templeman has been here 115 years. With its Swiss army knives, Barbours and hand-carved walking sticks, it looks at home in the town in a way few other shops do. One can imagine Prince Charles himself browsing here. Yet for Templeman, as for many other shops in Dorchester's centre, the future looks bleak.

Dorchester's story is one that is being repeated in small towns across the country, with varying degrees of opportunism, skulduggery and apathy. But in Dorchester, the involvement of the Duchy of Cornwall and its utopian housing project at Poundbury gives the tale an added element of irony.

Like the land appropriated for the superstores, Poundbury belongs to the Duchy and was used, until now, for farming. If it grows as Charles hopes, it will, in 20 years, consist of two to three thousand homes, broken up into urban districts and interspersed by small shops, offices and other workplaces. Already, with about 60 houses on the way to completion and several already occupied, it looks a brave experiment.

Poundbury re-creates the look of a traditional village, with shops and workplaces near the houses, in the hope that the development will let its residents lead more wholesome, some-what old-fashioned lifestyles. "The masterplan", goes a background brief, "has been designed to reduce...dependence on the car, enabling people to live within walking distance of their employment." Yet on Duchy land only a mile to the south, Tesco and its neighbouring stores are designed both to exploit and to increase dependency on the car.

Poundbury is meant to be a tactful way of expanding Dorchester, a gentle accretion of its ancient fabric. Tesco, twee from top to bottom, a hilarious exercise in vernacular fakery, comes not to praise Dorchester but to bury it. Sepia views of Dorchester's pre-modern streets decorate the walls of the superstore like trophies.

The evil of these superstores is that they threaten to kill off the last vestiges of old- fashioned, small-town civility. Joyce Graham, who fought vainly against the building of Dorchester's new superstores, runs a filling station on the eastern edge of the town, but she is unlikely to be running it for very much longer: Tesco is building a new filling station outside the superstore, where the petrol will cost less at the pump than Joyce Graham is able to buy it for wholesale. As Mrs Graham sees it, when she goes, the community will not merely be losing a source of petrol, it will also be losing a friendly, human shop. "I've got a fantastic staff, we know all our customers, we know who's got arthritis and needs a hand with the pumps, we do lots of deliveries to people's homes, things like potatoes. You wouldn't dream of expecting that sort of service in Tesco, would you?"

What does Tesco give you instead? You get responsibility to the community smeared all over the shop like ointment. Framed certificates hang four deep on the wall - Heartbeat Award, Lions Fun Run 92 Highest Team Sponsorship, Curriculum Centre Initiative. You get "Our toilets are checked every hour by our staff and any deficiencies corrected"; you get a security guard in a smart uniform, and huge, slowly revolving doors as in an airport. The place is a palace of alienation.

Dorchester is one of the most beautiful towns in England. The Walks form the most elegant self-definition a town could possess, a perfect promenade. But, taking the spring air one evening, I passed not a single person on its entire circuit. A handful of shops in the town pique the curiosity; for the rest, from Dorothy Perkins to Kwik-Save, it's exactly what you'd expect. What soul the town has left is being eroded away.

But maybe all is not lost. Travel north from Dorchester for 30 miles and you will come to Shaftesbury, another market town which has much in common with Dorchester as it was. There is a baker, a greengrocer, a gunsmith, a cattle market, several pubs and much else that is charming besides. But anyone contemplat- ing moving there should first pay a visit to the North Dorset District Council planning office and open the file marked Chelverton Properties. They will find that a company of that name has just lodged an application to build a superstore on the edge of Shaftesbury. The application is being considered next month, and, if the past is any guide, a little bit more of England as we know it will shortly disappear.

Additional research by Dominic Prince