Identikit Exeter branded Britain's worst clone town

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Exeter has been exposed as the worst offender of "clone town Britain" with the country's blandest high street, according to a report published today.

Exeter has been exposed as the worst offender of "clone town Britain" with the country's blandest high street, according to a report published today.

Local communities were urged to fight back against the "bloated retail behemoths" that dominate "identikit" high streets in the UK to save local economies.

The report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), an independent think- tank, found that 42 per cent of towns surveyed were "clone towns" - places stripped of their identity by the global and national chains that have colonised so many of the country's high streets.

Just one independent shop jostles for space with the chains on Exeter's high street, while just 10 out of 25 possible different categories of shop are represented.

Andrew Simms, policy director at the NEF, said: "Big chains have run riot, becoming superweeds that choked out other retailers. The argument that big retail is good because it provides consumers with choice is ironic, because in the end it leaves us with no choice at all."

Andrew Bell, an Exeter resident and campaigner on environmental and social issues, said: "The high street is a bland old mix of the usual suspects. It's indicative of what is happening across the country, which is worrying. Small businesses are being squeezed out which means money gets siphoned out of the local economy and into pockets of people who don't live in the community."

Dumfries in Scotland, Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, Winchester in Hampshire, and Cheltenham in Gloucestershire were among the top 10 "clone towns", based on 103 surveys completed. London fared even worse than the national average, with 48 per cent of the so-called "villages" in the capital branded as "clones".

Of the 33 per cent of towns to escape censure, Hebden Bridge, in the Yorkshire Pennines, scored the highest for best retaining its individual character. The four other towns with the most distinctive high streets in Britain are Peebles and Bo'ness in Scotland, Normanton in West Yorkshire, and Frodsham in Cheshire.

Duncan McKie, who owns Pot Stop, a cook shop on Hebden Bridge's high street, said: "Shop-keeping here is how it was years ago. We give old-fashioned service - something that's lacking in the big chains."

The tourist office recommends shopping and walking as the top two pursuits in the old mill town, which is in the heart of Bronte country. Any visitor glancing out of the tourist office's front door won't see a single chain store. Instead, quirky boutiques await, from a fair trade shop (known locally as "that hippie shop") selling ethnic goods and a kitchenware shop, to a country tailor for all your hunting, shooting and walking needs.

Caroline Kindy, managing director of Element, a jewellery shop, said coming top of the survey was "a real testament to the independent shops that have taken the plunge".

Mark Rumfitt, a member of Exeter's Chamber of Commerce and manager of the Guildhall shopping centre, reacted angrily. "There is much more to a city centre than the range of shops. Exeter has so much culture - a cathedral, a large section of Roman walls, the largest number of churches within any city centre." John Harvey, the city centre manager, said: "I'm not sure which town the surveyors visited but I'm certain it wasn't Exeter on the basis of this report. It doesn't bear any resemblance to the facts on the ground."

The worst and the best

EXETER. Population: 111,110

History: Much of the city centre was levelled by bombing in 1942 and has been rebuilt

Famous sons: Tommy Cooper was brought up in Exeter. Coldplay's Chris Martin was born there and J K Rowling studied there

HEBDEN BRIDGE. Population: 13,100

History: During the Seventies and Eighties the town was populated by a bohemian mix of artists and writers

Famous sons: Ted Hughes and Sir Bernard Ingham. Sylvia Plath is buried on a hill overlooking the town.