Big Mac and traffic, please

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DESPITE ITS chipped stonework and peeling paint, the 15th century Maiden's Head pub in Uckfield, East Sussex, is an imposing presence at the top of a high street dominated by specialist shops and family-run businesses.

But, to the delight of many inhabitants, the likes of Thorpe's gentlemen's outfitters, Crannage Brothers television and hi-fi store, and Brandon's coffee shop, are about to be joined by a newcomer whose name is known far beyond the confines of the market town.

McDonald's has plumped for Uckfield as the location for its first outlet in the entire district of Wealden, sandwiched between Ashdown Forest to the north and the South Downs.

It is a campaign in-the-waiting for the ``not in my back yard" tendency. Or so one would have thought. Yet far from resenting this encroachment into their (almost) rural idyll, the people of Uckfield welcome it as a move to "put their town on the map".

McDonald's has got used to objectors bemoaning the increase in traffic a new opening will cause. But Uckfield town council is positively looking forward to a spot of congestion. It thinks that the new eatery will bring in fast food fans from a huge catchment area, as well as passing traffic from the nearby A22 Eastbourne-to-London road.

The town clerk, Linda Butcher, is confident that people will then stay in the town and shop in the high street, which currently has several empty shops.

She brushes aside protests, arising from a noticeably small number of critics, who argue that the arrival of the burger outlet could have the reverse effect if McDonald's customers were put off going as far as the high street by the worsening traffic congestion.

She insists that the outlet will provide new jobs, as well as giving youngsters somewhere to go, an important function in a town with little to offer its all-too-frequently bored youth.

In fact, the lack of facilities for young people was identified as one of the main concerns in a recent survey of households. One or two respondents even specified that a McDonald's could be the answer.

The local paper carries regular reports of vandalism and petty crime and last year a survey revealed that the area had one of the worst youth drug problems in rural Britain.

Uckfield, however, is hardly a dying rural backwater. It has a young and growing population of around 13,000, and boasts low unemployment, although this is partly because many of the newer inhabitants, who moved into the town's greenfield housing developments over the past 20 years, commute elsewhere to work.

Martin Stallard, of Wealden council's planning department, takes the majority view that McDonald's will act as an indicator of the town's vitality and a catalyst for inward investment from other companies.

He is optimistic that it might even herald the start of an influx of national chains, reversing the predominant flow of shoppers to the coastal towns of Eastbourne and Brighton.

In the neglected wood-panelled restaurant of the Maiden's Head, three skinny teenagers hunched over a dusty pool table agree that McDonald's would be a cheap place to hang out.

Too old for the school youth club and uninspired by the council's makeshift internet bar, they would also like a pool hall or the skate park that, they say, the council promised but never delivered.

Uckfield is just one of 100 locations earmarked for new McDonald's this year, in an aggressive expansion policy that will see the multinational top 1,000 outlets in this country.

And some will take their lead not from Uckfield but from Hampstead, the London suburb where celebrities such as Dame Judi Dench, Lord Bragg and Tom Conti flocked to the Nimby cause.

McDonald's won that one but the residents of the London stockbroker belt village of Hinchley Wood in Surrey are determined that they will defeat the burger giant.

In an attempt to get anybody, bar McDonald's, to take over their local pub in order to retain some sense of village identity, they are soliciting interest from hotel and brewery chains.

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition against the outlet and the car park site is under occupation by caravans of protesters.

McDonald's, however, has shown no signs of being moved by the strength of local feel- ing. "We do take into account the views of residents. We just don't share [their] concerns," said a spokesman.