Clone attack? The two sides of High Street, UK

A report criticises Britain for its bland 'clone towns' with 'identikit' high streets, citing Exeter as the worst offender and Hebden Bridge as its antithesis. But is it fair? By Terri Judd and Terry Kirby

Tuesday 07 June 2005 00:00 BST

Exeter: the worst?

Exeter: the worst?

When bombs rained down on Exeter during the Blitz, St Stephen's church lost all but one stained- glass window. Around it, the city centre lay in ruins.

Emerging into the rain of the High Street yesterday, the ancient parish church is one of the few historical survivors standing out in a crowd of ugly post-war buildings and chain stores.

Dixons and Burtons straight ahead, The Link to the left - it is this dominance of national retailers which has earned the Devon city the title of the worst "clone town" in Britain.

With just one independent store - a family tobacconist - Exeter High Street comes in for considerable criticism from the New Economics Foundation, an independent think-tank.

Its report talks of the onward march of soulless clone towns stealing the identity of cities and of the "darker side" of identikit commercial culture.

"Across Britain, communities are struggling to defend themselves against being developed to death," the report said. Highlighting people's "deep sense of unease" about the increasing uniformity of our high streets, it describes Exeter as a place where choice has been compromised by a lack of independent stores.

"Waltons," said pensioner Ann Webber as she waited for a bus yesterday, "was a lovely old fashioned clothes store that used to have fairy lights at Christmas. I think it's absolutely appalling that it is all the same shops now. You could be anywhere."

Comfortably entrenched in the leather armchairs next to the cigar humidor of his tobacconist, Martin McGahey - the street's last independent retailer - explained how his grandfather held the freehold until Second World War bombs devastated the shop. After the war, the city deemed it simplest and quickest to bulldoze any remaining buildings and let the big developers construct large blocks to be rented out by tenants and shopkeepers.

"You can't compete with the landlord mentality we have got in this country. In other countries in the world, such as France, you would be paying a quarter the rent we are paying. In this country we've got this landlord- tenant thing and they [councils] want national names which guarantees month in, month out they can come up with the rent," said Mr McGahey.

His shop, sandwiched between New Look and Next, has survived by ensuring its specialist services are marketed internationally. But his previous rent review saw it jump 50 per cent. "Every time there is a rent increase it comes directly out of my back pocket. But I am determined to hold on," Mr McGahey said.

Nevertheless, only the blinkered would deem the city nothing more than a collection of Marks & Spencer and Milletts.

Down side streets of the once influential 17th-century trading city, the pretty cathedral green can be seen on one side, while the remains of a Norman castle sit on the other.

Murals of Devon-born adventurers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, hanging baskets and a spectacular, if controversial, giant pyramid sculpture bear testament to the battle against accusations of blandness. And the cobbled streets off the main road boast an array of independent shops.

"Exeter has plenty of streets with a huge range of independent stores if people venture away from the High Street," said city centre manager John Harvey. "Most high streets are dominated by national chains, but I don't think it is a negative thing. Today's independents are tomorrow's chain stores and the shops that thrive are the ones people spend their money in."

Sitting in the Grade-II listed building on a cobbled side street, which houses her eclectic collection of Indonesian artefacts, shopowner Philippa Rutherford said: "The High Street is so expensive. The rents are phenomenal. People can't afford it."

And now a major £175m development just off the High Street is about to become home to a new 128,500sq-ft Debenhams, as well as a 43,000sq-ft Next, though council planners insist space has been set aside for independent retailers.

However, far from a "deep sense of unease" , most locals welcomed the new "facelift" yesterday, insisting the previous buildings had been an eyesore.

While she agreed it was unfortunate that the chain stores had dominated in Exeter, former teacher Wendy Harrie-Clark said: "People are pretty relaxed and happy here. It is often said to be one of the most popular cities to live in."

Libby Gaffney, a tourist from Canada, seemed bemused about all the fuss. The 56-year-old from Ottawa explained that in her native land the shops were being drawn out of town into giant super-malls where the big names dominated. "It is just neat to see shops in the High Street and see them so close to historical places," she said.

For the next generation, the development means more of the affordable shops they have grown up with, explained 17-year-old students Danielle Sparks and Emilee Tombs. Miss Tombs said: "Independent shops tend to be more expensive and we like to shop. I quite like Exeter. It has got a lot of nice historical sites. I went to Milton Keynes and that was completely bleak."

Hebden Bridge: the best?

It was business as usual in Hebden Bridge yesterday. When you have once been nominated the fourth funkiest place on the planet as well as the lesbian capital of Britain, being acclaimed for the individual quality of your shops was, well, pretty much par for the course.

Not that it was entirely unexpected either since this small, former mill town in Yorkshire is, as Stewart Brown, the local mayor, put it yesterday, as much known now for the qualities of its lattes as it was known for the mystical powers of its ley lines in the 60s and 70s when the alternative community first began to move in, attracted by cheap property and the glorious surrounding countryside.

Nevertheless, there was a quiet sense of pride about the fact that the report from the New Economics Foundation had singled out Hebden Bridge as the best in the country for retaining the individual character of its shops and remaining free of the stultifying influence of the global and national chains which have, says the report, turned many town centres into "identikit" high streets.

And, purely by coincidence, this was something bitterly understood by Elaine Lawrence, 42, strolling through Hebden Bridge after visiting her acupuncturist. "I run a furniture store in Macclesfield and I am going to have to close down in the near future because its no longer economic," she said. "Our city centres are dying, crippled by the out-of-town supermarkets, high rent and rates and parking restrictions - there will be nothing left for our children."

She looked enviously around the pleasant centre of Hebden Bridge: 'There's no large supermarket on the outskirts of town to take away trade, so of course there are good specialist shops here - but you have to look at the carrier bags to see whether they are actually buying. "

And specialist shops there are in plentiful supply, created by a combination of the residual hippy ethos of the 60s and 70s and the more recent "New Agers" and middle-class incomers, who, attracted by all the quality of life indicators, either downsize or commute to Manchester, Leeds or Bradford. Its status was confirmed in a recent survey in British Airways' magazine Highlife, which ranked Hebden Bridge as the fourth funkiest city in the world, though not quite as cool as Daylesford, Australia, which won, Tiradentes in Brazil which took second and Burlington, Vermont, which was third.

But the town also has a respectable tourist population, attracted by the walking available on the nearby hills, the town's proximity to Brontë Country, and the home of the late poet laureate Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath, his first wife, who committed suicide, is buried nearby.

It is this mix of the present and the past that gives the town its distinctive character. Apart from a couple of small supermarkets - a Spar and a Co-op - the streets are dominated by independent shops: grocers, butchers and delicatessens, selling a combination of local delicacies, olive oils and such essentials as kaffir lime leaves and Fair Trade coffee. There are also organic juice bars, shops selling antiques, books and artists materials, picture framers, a clog shop, and a place that claims to be "Britain's number one manufacturer of juggling equipment." There is also, as one person pointed out, "every kind of New Age treatment" available.

At Studio Seven arts shop, in Market Street, proprietor Peter Harvey, said the town had always had strong artistic links. "I come from an artistic family - my mother's a potter and my step-father's an artist. There are several studios in the town. It's that kind of thing that makes it a nice place to live and work. All the shops seem to have remained in private hands."

That is something remembered well by one of the area's more famous former residents, Sir Bernard Ingham, the former spokesman for Margaret Thatcher who still writes a column for the local paper. He said: "It is a small town which has managed to resist the influx of supermarkets. In my youth I remember it for the quality of the individual shops like the butchers, with a whole cow's head in the window." The local speciality, Sir Bernard said, was dock pudding, made with dock leaves, spring onions, oatmeal and bacon.

There wasn't much evidence of oatmeal at the Mooch café and bar in Market Street yesterday afternoon, where they were serving tapas, wine and the aforementioned lattes to a soundtrack of David Bowie and world music amid a relaxed mix of children, magazines and potted palms. It was set up by Sami Rose and Geoff Kerouac, their first venture into catering.

Ms Rose said: "There are a few bars in the town, but we wanted some where with a more chilled-out feel, with good food at good prices. We chose Hebden because we both knew the place as being a small place with a nice vibe, in the middle of lovely countryside, while its easy to get to Manchester or Leeds."

Among the customers were Catherine Groves, 40, a literacy teacher at Bradford College and her daughter Hana. "We moved here from Reading five years ago because we wanted a different pace of life; we knew the town anyway because my husband's father used to manage a writing charity set up here by Seamus Heaney. I like all the shops because you can get almost everything you need here - perhaps apart from teenage clothes," she said, nodding to Hana.

"You don't need to go out of the town and you end up knowing everybody - just don't expect to be on time for an appointment, you can't arrive on time because you keep bumping into people. It's that kind of place."

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