High streets suffocate in 'Clone Britannia'

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Britain has become a nation of "clone towns" where chain stores are spreading "like weeds in a garden" and the traditional high street is a thing of the past, according to a report published today.

Britain has become a nation of "clone towns" where chain stores are spreading "like weeds in a garden" and the traditional high street is a thing of the past, according to a report published today.

Thousands of local businesses and small independent traders are being forced to close by the increasing homogenisation of even small towns, experts have warned.

The report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) says independently owned general stores are closing at the rate of one per day. Between 1997 and 2002, 50 small, specialist shops such as butchers and fishmongers were shutting every week. Twenty traditional, non-chain pubs cease trading every month, and in the past 10 years, the number of bank branches has fallen by one third.

Ashford in Kent, Guildford in Surrey, and Kirkcaldy in Scotland are among towns named as "clone towns" in the report.

Andrew Simms, policy director at the NEF, said: "Chain stores proliferate like weeds in the garden. They have the marketing budgets, political contacts and resources that give them an unfair economic advantage over real local shops and services.

"The danger is that unless we can figure out how to weed some of the identikit, chain store shop fronts from our high streets, we will all end up living in clone towns."

Chain stores such as Debenhams and supermarket giants including Tesco are criticised in the report. For every £8 spent in Britain each day, £1 goes to Tesco.

Out-of-town superstores have drawn people away from the traditional high street, while companies have also begun to affect the business of small corner shops by introducing town-centre stores such as Tesco Express. The report says Tesco plans to open 1,000 more Express shops over the next five years, which could drive hundreds more corner stores out of business.

Of the 100 cinemas in London, half are owned by the four big franchises - UCI, UGC, Warner and Odeon. Meanwhile, the aggressive business tactics of coffee "super-chains" such as Starbucks have driven out many small cafés from town centres.

The NEF has called on the Government and local authorities to take action and impose legislation which could limit the spread of huge chains across Britain's small towns. The report also praises towns in Britain, such as Lewes in Sussex, for using planning laws to retain small local retailers and resist the invasion of huge superstores.

A spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium said that the NEF report was "unnaturally prejudiced" against big business and chain stores.

She said: "We have always supported the "town centres first" approach and we agree that it would be a real shame to lose the small independent shops that give our towns and communities that real character.

"However, we feel that a holistic approach can be taken here - one that doesn't exclude any retail formats. Chains do offer competitive prices and it is natural that this, in addition to brand recognition, will attract custom - but that doesn't mean chains are 'taking over' nor does it mean customers are turning their backs on local businesses."

* The survey can be accessed at www.neweconomics.org

THE CLONE BURY ST EDMUNDS, SUFFOLK

Past residents of Bury St Edmunds would struggle to recognise parts of its main street today. While the historic Suffolk market town retains its 12th-century abbey - recently restored - its shopping drag is lined with major chains.

Residents reacted angrily to the clone town tag, but Bury St Edmunds generated an annual retail turnover of £215m last year. Major chains include Marks & Spencer, Woolworths, Boots, WH Smith, Dixons, McDonald's, Burger King, Game and B&Q. Development of the centre will see Debenhams, Waterstones and HMV, among others, added to the list in the next three years.

The arrival of more large chain stores in Bury is worrying small independent businesses in the area. "This is a lovely little town, and I have invested a lot of money in this shop, which I enjoy running immensely," said Robin Wood, who co-owns Toppers sandwich shop. "It is a little worrying that they are planning to build this new shopping precinct."

But officials have rounded on the report, saying it failed to take account of the range of small shops.

"It's grossly unfair," said the Conservative councillor Jim Thorndyke. "Bury is full of individual little shops. The town is retaining its character - having a few national chains won't make any difference. In fact, they make the smaller shops more viable as they drag people into the town."

THE STALWART LEWES, EAST SUSSEX

Nestling in the South Downs of Sussex, the town of Lewes has proved to be an exception to the rule of Clone Town Britain.

The biggest chain store on its high street is a small Monsoon clothes shop, with not a Starbucks or department store to be seen.

Lewes, population 15,000, is typical of the kind of small town that the NEF says can easily fall prey to cloning. Yet 70 per cent of all the retailers are small, independent traders, including 60 per cent of the clothes stores.

The town centre boasts an award-winning butchers, a well-stocked independent bookshop and a plethora of mid-range boutiques, cafés and specialist stores such as ironmongers.

Kate Hook, secretary of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and owner of a shop selling oriental rugs, said: "Local residents are very supportive of the shops and independent traders. Some people have lived here for generations and they like to shop at places that have been here for generations too. The retailers also work very hard, chatting to customers and getting involved in the community."

A branch of the Next chain that had opened on the high street closed recently because shoppers preferred to go to independent stores, Ms Hook said.

The NEF report also said that planning laws which limited the amount of floor space businesses could occupy had also stopped many chains from moving in.

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