Leading article: Personal shopper

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A free market in retailing has been a benefit to Britons in many ways. It has brought down the price of goods. We can generally get what we want more conveniently. But it would be hard to argue that it has beautified our high streets. It is estimated that four out 10 of the nation's main shopping thoroughfares have been overwhelmed by the plastic fascias and bold logos of the chain stores. These vistas could belong to any number of towns.

But could the backlash against the "clone town" effect be starting? A report from the Work Foundation points out that towns that do more to support independent retailers and attempt to cultivate a unique image are not only more pleasing to the eye, they often make more money too. A distinctive town centre can be good for business.

And this is surely the central point. The big chains come in with promises of local employment and economic growth. But they end up hollowing out towns spiritually. France, whose towns and villages have resisted the lure of the chain stores better than most, attracts more tourists than any other nation in the world. It is hard not to suspect that the two trends are related.

Of course, it is up to each town and community to decide how they want their high street to look. But we know which side we would favour. Homogeneity is dull. Diversity is interesting. But then you would expect The Independent to say that, wouldn't you?

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