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Tesco and Starbucks feel the heat in battle against 'clone town Britain'

Eifion Rees

23rd August, 2011

David Cameron's appointment of a 'shops tsar', the controversial Localism Bill, and increasing opposition to supermarkets and other chain stores could mark a turning point in the struggle to save Britain's high streets

It wasn’t so much Labour’s decision last week to dub Tesco an ‘almighty conglomerate‘ whose powers needed curbing that was the surprise, but that it had taken so long for a political party to do so.

The dominance of supermarkets and chain stores has long been a pernicious feature of UK life: travel writer Bill Bryson rued the loss of Britain’s once-diverse high streets in his Notes from a Small Island almost two decades ago; the New Economics Foundation (NEF) coined the term ‘clone town’ in a 2005 report to describe those overrun by large, generic retailers.

Now concern for the beleaguered local shop has finally reached national government. In May, David Cameron appointed retail expert Mary Portas the government’s 'shops tsar' to identify solutions to the clone town conundrum. Could the submission of her report this autumn mark a turning point for independents?

They certainly need all the help they can get. NEF’s 2010 Reimagining the High Street survey found that 41 per cent of towns were already clones (Cambridge the worst of them), 23 per cent were on-the-cusp ‘border towns’ and only 36 per cent were thriving ‘home towns’. Whitstable boasts the UK’s most vibrant, independent high street.

Up until now successive governments have been unwilling or unable to put a stop to the expansion of chain stores and supermarkets. With the time, money and resources to navigate complicated planning procedures and area plans, tenancies have been granted and new buildings greenlighted almost as a matter of course.

Creeping homogenisation

As a result the onus has increasingly been on individuals, communities and campaign groups to act to prevent the creeping homogenisation of their high streets. The problem is that clone towns are self perpetuating: gutted town centres degrade communities and community spirit – precisely what is most effective at combating them. The stranglehold they exert means local economies become fragile and social interaction decreases, possible factors in the riots that swept England earlier in the month.

Observers including environmental campaigner and blogger Duncan Clark have commented on the fact that our high streets are increasingly representative of a faceless, commodified system that no one has a vested interest in protecting. Currys and Foot Locker were looted in Brixton (designated a London clone town in 2010) while the Turkish and Kurdish owners of convenience stores in Stoke Newington (the capital’s second highest-scoring ‘home town’) grouped together to defend their businesses and the area.

Rita Exner of the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) highlights the role farmers’ market have to play in drawing shoppers and shops back to towns apple-cored by superstores. Operating since 1999, Stroud farmers’ market has expanded to 50-60 stalls that radiate into side streets off the main market square. Local businesses are now opening on the weekends to capitalise on the influx of people.

Given the choice, people want to see their communities remain viable and vibrant, says Exner, but if the success of Stroud is to be repeated in towns and urban centres across the UK then changes must be made to planning and signage laws.

‘Most farmers’ markets are monthly but if they are to become people’s first port of call for food shopping then we would like to see them happen more regularly. Weekly markets are often deemed to fall outside the “temporary events” concession, however, and so become subject to planning laws. Restrictions on road signs also mean there can be issues advertising them. More support from local authorities would be most welcome.’

Corporate takeover

Launched in 2005, the Tescopoly Alliance aims to challenge, among other things, the market-distorting impact of Tesco on small businesses and the community. There have been victories in fighting the corporate takeover of the British high street, says its spokesperson and Friends of the Earth food campaigner Helen Rimmer: councillors recently refused permission for a Sainsbury’s store in Todmorden, Yorkshire, for example, because of the impact it would have on the town centre.

‘The number of objection letters to a new supermarket some councils receive – often running into thousands – would indicate widespread unhappiness about the supermarket takeover. But often consumers have little choice in where to shop and big retailers use their purchasing power to drive down prices, hurting farmers here and overseas and diverting trade from the local economy.’

Rimmer says councils often recognise the negative impact of chain stores, but fear the cost of the appeals process – Tesco in particular routinely appeals any decision against it. Many also find it difficult to turn down applications because of the lack of a strong enough national planning policy to protect town centres and local shops, weakened further by the national planning policy framework.

As a result, residents still have to fight their own fights, especially in relatively untapped areas where chains have identified rich pickings. Having fought off a Starbucks and a Tesco, residents of Stoke Newington (which already has eight of the Big Four supermarkets within a mile’s radius) are taking on Sainsbury’s, which has plans for a major new store at the junction of Church Street and High Street.

‘People live here because of its character, because it hasn’t been turned into yet another desiccated main street, with a Boots, Holland & Barrett, Starbucks and countless phone shops,’ says Andrew Harrison, a volunteer with campaign group Stokey Local. ‘It’s fantastically varied, an absolute paradise of independent stores, from corner shops to boutiques – it’s the model of what national and local authorities ought to be encouraging.’

Sainsbury’s has yet to apply for planning permission, but when the time comes the campaign will be forced to focus on concerns about traffic congestion – the reason? Under present legislation it is apparently not possible for objections to supermarkets or other stores to be lodged on the grounds of the damage done to an area’s character or small businesses.

But that may be about to change. An unlikely new hope on the horizon is the coalition government’s Localism Bill, introduced to parliament in December and expected to be enacted at the end of this year. Widely criticised for appearing to open up the greenbelt for development, it will also contain provision allowing councils and individuals to contest proposed developments on the grounds of their effect on the character of their areas, including local referendums and neighbourhood planning.

It would be an irony if the Bill that opponents of wind farms have been praying for turns out to be the one that blocks the power of the big chains to dominate local high streets and create a Clone Britain. Not in my back yard indeed.

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