Clone-town Britain faces a rebellion on the high street

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The Independent Online

Towns sporting rows of identical houses and predictable shops have become the norm across Britain, but their days may be numbered. Independent retailers and creative new buildings are starting to break up the monotony.

The British high street is breaking free from the tyranny of the chain store and using home-grown businesses to attract visitors, says the Work Foundation think-tank. Its investigation into the identities of the nation's towns and cities found a growing backlash against uniform housing estates and unimaginative architecture. From Cambridge to Cardiff, towns and cities are keen to assert their regional identities, says the paper, "Distinctiveness and Cities – Beyond 'Find and Replace' Economic Development". It pointed to the success of Manchester's gay-friendly Canal Street and Edinburgh's flourishing financial centre as examples where inspiration has been drawn from local characteristics.

Neil Lee, a researcher at the foundation and author of the report, said that financial constraints have been partly responsible for homogenisation. "Place-making relies on using points of difference to competitive advantage, but until recently, cities have not always had the time or money". The vogue for asserting local identity is partly due to the devolution of power to local councils, he said. "People are beginning to realise that local identity matters."

But the economic success of towns that have embraced their idiosyncrasies has encouraged others to follow suit. Instead of inspiring innovation, it has led to "too many copy-cat developments", the report said. The challenge is for towns not to imitate but to innovate themselves in a unique way, using their own distinctive qualities.

It takes the Angel of the North, as an example. Anthony Gormley's giant statue at Gateshead made public art into a must-have feature for planners around the country.

"But the most economically and socially successful cities artfully use their distinctiveness to craft a compelling offer to people and companies," the report says. "Distinctiveness becomes a conscious, explicit strategy of redevelopment."

Developments that harness a unique aspect of a city's culture, such as Hay-on-Wye's literary festival, or a particular venue, such as Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, are the most effective. "Distinctiveness works best when the unique history of a location is used to build a compelling proposition," Mr Lee said. Design is also central to highlighting what is unique about an area, the report says.

And cities can reap vast economic benefits by making daring commissions. Frank Gehry's shimmering Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is an example. "When the Guggenheim Bilbao was built it was a Trojan horse for other things," said Mr Lee.

"Bilbao got a new metro, a new airport and suddenly there was this entrepreneurial spirit in the city. By using what made them distinctive and building on their own identity, they have thrived."

Thriving cities often have a specialist sector, according to the paper. A town or city can assert its distinctiveness by harnessing an economic specialism, for example the hi-tech industry in Cambridge, or financial services in Edinburgh.