Many towns 'bland clones' of each other

THE individual character of towns in East Anglia is under threat as global and national retail chains turn shopping centres into bland clones, it has been claimed.

THE individual character of towns in East Anglia is under threat as global and national retail chains turn shopping centres into bland clones, it has been claimed.

Richard Ward, director of Suffolk Preservation Society, said local distinctiveness was being eroded as large national retailers with corporate identities and standardised developments move in.

His warning came as the results of a study into the number of soulless and uniform high streets exposed two Suffolk towns as very different examples.

While the survey said Bury St Edmunds and Hadleigh are illustrations of communities struggling to defend themselves against being developed, they are ranked at opposite ends of the scale.


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Bury St Edmunds is already rated as a “clone town” despite its wealth of independent stores, historic centre and thriving market.

The proposed Cattle Market development is set to entrench its nondescript status, the study says.

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Meanwhile Hadleigh is ranked as a “home town”, being instantly recognisable and distinctive to both residents and visitors.

Thetford is graded as a “border town”, on the cusp between a home town and clone town.

However Mr Ward said homogeneity was a threat to all of Suffolk.

He said: “The problem is development in the late 20th Century has been at such a pace and level a lot of local distinctiveness has been lost to the corporate identity of large national builders.

“They are coming along with their standardised development approach and building them everywhere.

“There are a few exceptions where towns have fought hard to keep local identity and character but the majority of schemes, particularly housing, is fairly mediocre and it is of a fairly bland character that you can see anywhere in the country, not just in Suffolk. Local distinctiveness becomes eroded.

“This is a problem all across Suffolk and a problem all across the country and it's because of the way the planning system works and the way the local authorities work.

“Producing design locally takes time and resources to bring about but it's what is needed. It is concerning.”

The results of the investigation by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) were released yesterday and show 42% of the UK towns surveyed are clone towns while a further 26% are under threat.

Clone Town Britain: The survey results shows how retail spaces once boasting a thriving mix of independent and family-owned stores are now filled with faceless supermarket retailers, fast-food chains, mobile phone shops and global fashion outlets.

It means once distinctive high streets have become clones and could easily be mistaken for dozens of bland town centres across the country.

NEF policy director, Andrew Simms, said: “Clone stores have a triple whammy on communities: they bleed the local economy of money, destroy the social glue provided by real local shops that holds communities together, and they steal the identity of our towns and cities.

“Then we are left with soulless clone towns. 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.”

The survey covered 103 towns, villages and cities nationally. Researchers counted and categorised 50 shops on the high street according to ownership and type. It showed clone towns have a smaller range than border, or home towns.

The foundation has now launched a manifesto, detailing how towns can enhance their diversity and strengthen their local economies. Among its recommendations, it calls for the use of planning law to protect locally owned stores.

Richard Atkins, Ipswich Borough Council's portfolio-holder for planning and economic development, said imaginative planning, cultural diversity and the Waterfront regeneration has ensured Ipswich retained and improved its character, making it different from many other towns and cities.

He added: “Ipswich has avoided the drift to blandness by encouraging a variety of shops and services and maximising its heritage.”

A spokesman for Waveney District Council said it had no power to protect independent retailers by stopping too many chains coming to town centres.

He added: “What we have tried to do is protect independent retailers and small outlets through our regeneration activity, by giving grants for new shop fronts in Lowestoft and market towns, where there is a good mix of independent retailers that we would want to retain.”

Nick Goulding, chief executive of The Forum of Private Business, which represents 25,000 small businesses, said: “Small shops are dying on their feet as a result of the anti-competitive practices of the big chains.

“We would urge the public to use their high street shops and not be taken in by the propaganda of the big names, which claim to provide the best cost quality and choice. This myth needs to be exploded."

Hadleigh is one of Britain's most historic towns so it's perhaps not surprising the study has rated it as a “home town”.

Its comfortable score of 44.5 is probably testament to its status as one of the wealthiest and most important of Suffolk's wool cloth towns between the 1300s and 1600s.

It's illustrious past hails back to when it was a royal town in Viking times and one of the Viking kings, Guthren, is reputed to have died and been buried there.

Although its prominence and prosperity diminished as the type of cloth and wool it was famed for fell out of fashion, bringing a period of extreme poverty in the 18th and 19th Century, its medieval buildings still survive, contributing to the unique character of its high street.

Its population has soared from 1,000 in the 15th Century to about 7,000 today.

About 90% of the high street is listed, limiting its attractiveness to larger chains and allowing it to offer a choice of high-quality food shops and individual stores.

It was one of the reasons why proposals for a Tesco supermarket in the rural town were met with opposition.

There has been an ongoing battle surrounding the plans, but Tesco has refused to give up and the applications remain lodged with the council to be considered.

Jan Byrne, chair of Hadleigh Society, said the plans would “knock-out” local food shops and suppliers, resulting in fewer people browsing the other independent shops, as well as dominating the environment and impacting on precious water meadowland.

She said of the town's rating: “It's absolutely brilliant. What we want is a town that people want to live in; a town that's alive with clubs, organisations and groups for all age groups.”

Neil Greig, Babergh's head of planning policy and economic development, added: "Hadleigh has a unique historic environment and is an attractive place to shop. Recognising this, Babergh District Council has invested in enhancing the town centre, including providing the facilities for a bigger market.

“We have also changed the way the car parks operate to encourage shoppers rather than commuters. It is important to remember, therefore, that no town can remain totally unaltered and still be guaranteed a prosperous future”.

Flower shows, independent traders and mazes of historic streets could not convince the survey's researchers to classify Bury St Edmunds among the 34 “home towns”.

With a score of 22.5 Bury was given a clone town label and is set to have its status entrenched with Centros Miller's £80million cattlemarket development, the survey says.

Bury grew up around one of the most powerful abbeys in medieval Europe, founded by King Cnut. With the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey was demolished but its ruins remain, surrounded by the award-winning gardens.

Its ancient town plan has survived and cloth manufacturing made it into a prosperous market town.

Bury is home to a weekly market, the Victorian Corn Exchange and individual stores, which the survey believes will be threatened with the new 32-shop development.

It says the proposed glass building is “nondescript” and adds: “The developers' blueprint not only threatens to kill off the remaining diversity in the town's side streets, it also threatens people's sense of place, heritage, belonging and well-being.”

Anthony Platt, leader of the 'group of 32', which is opposing the plans, said: “We are not a clone town. We have a number of shops that are national chains but they are spread about the town. However, we will be a clone town fairly shortly because of the development.

“The knock-on effect of the development will be even worse than the development itself. It will change Bury completely.

“It is now a town of little shops that are fun and different and it will simply put in clone shops that people can go to anywhere else.”

Mr Platt said the development would be “very dangerous” for the town. He claimed the design would deprive the smaller shops of passing trade and create traffic problems.

However, Andrew Varley, deputy leader of St Edmundsbury Borough Council and chairman of the Cattle Market Redevelopment Working Party, said: “If they seriously believe Bury St Edmunds is a prime example of this phenomenon then they haven't conducted their survey very thoroughly.

“The cattlemarket development will ensure Bury's prosperity for the future and that is the most important thing by a long way. This is a town where people live and work.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between the local and national retailers. The pulling power of the national chains, which is an unavoidable phenomenon of modern shopping, is bound to have a positive effect on local business.”

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