How to build a happy community

What makes a town a living community is the number and variety of independently-owned shops
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The Independent Online

It is a hot, dry, quiet August and, like buddleia growing on wasteground, the great Poundbury debate has bloomed to fill the media vacuum. Maybe the fact that metropolitan types are on their holidays and seeing a different side of Britain has helped to whip up the row. Doubtless our acting Prime Minister has played his part by proudly announcing that parts of south-east England will soon become Prescottville, a solid, plain, no-nonsense solution to the housing crisis.

It is a brave person who takes sides on whether Poundbury, the Prince of Wales's development on the outskirts of Dorchester, is the dawning of a new age of sensitive planning, or, as Stephen Bayley described it in The Independent, "annoying, lifeless and sinister". His Royal Highness has argued, sensibly, against the "zoning" of towns that keeps shops, business and residential areas are kept apart.

Opponents claim that there is something fake and backward-looking about a new town that tries to look old. Dorchester itself is "a tragic sort of place", according to Bayley, and one that provides little for its residents and a quick fix of heritage for passing tourists.

I know neither Dorchester nor Poundbury, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, but a letter from an Independent reader, Marina Donald, struck a familiar chord. A former resident of the area, Ms Donald recently returned to Dorchester and was depressed by the experience. "The corn and seed merchants had gone, as had the good clothes and food shops." By the early evening, "the town was empty of all life and began to feel creepy".

In most debates of this kind, neither side has a monopoly of good sense, but here, surely, a basic, self-evident truth can be recognised. However a town is conceived, what makes it a happy, living community is, above all else, the number and variety of independently owned shops.

On the other hand, what destroys its spirit is having a sodding great supermarket leeching the life out of it.

Within five miles of where I live, there are models of both kinds of town. Harleston (population 4,000) has just been named the Norfolk Town of the Year by the Eastern Daily Press, and quite right. It has choral and dramatic societies, a festival supported by our local heroes of the arts, Louis de Bernieres and Elizabeth Jane Howard. According to the EDP, we also have a tree warden and an extra road-sweeper, of which I had previously been unaware.

But these groups, events and civic attributes would not exist, I am convinced, were it not for the fact that the shops of Harleston - greengrocers and butchers, hardware stores, outfitters, stationers, pet stores, the best bookshop in the area - are the arteries of commerce and communication that create the community. Like Poundbury, Harleston has a Budgens supermarket, but it is small and central enough to complement local shops rather than to drive them into receivership.

Down the road, what is called "the historic market town of Diss" (population 6,000) presents a different picture. A place that has much going for it - a fascinating history, an ancient inland lake, a weekly auction, an FA Vase-winning football team - Diss has the same problem that Ms Donald found in Dorchester. It is empty of life.

Although a few good retailers survive, its main street is now occupied mainly by charity shops. The council has tried to bring the place to life by sticking a bandstand in the park, but it is too late and an air of bored restlessness hangs over the town.

It is not difficult to see the problem. Just away from the centre are Safeway and Somerfield supermarkets. Bewilderingly, the solution of planners to the decline of the town has been to grant Tesco permission to build a new store alongside them. In response, Safeway will be doubling in size. These grim, strip-lit emporia are draining the lifeblood from the town.

Such is the power of these ruthless and immensely rich organisations, and the support they get from our millionaire-loving central government, that only the bravest councils will resist their progress. Hardly a week goes by without another defeat for local shops being announced. Today, it has been revealed, Beccles has fallen to a new Tesco. Inevitably, the supermarket has come out with the usual bogus line about wanting to play a full role in the community.

It would be interesting to take Prince Charles and Stephen Bayley on a little trip around the Waveney valley. The Prince would probably dislike some of the houses that have recently been built around here. Bayley might reconsider his view that "while life in a fast lane may get tiresome, life in a perpetual cul-de-sac is enervating in a more damaging way".

Because, around here, the fast lane leads to one destination - a vast supermarket whose "full role in the community" is to destroy its shops and, with them, its soul.