In a new report titled “Clone Town Britain,” the London-based New Economics Foundation warns that the country’s town centers are rapidly being overrun by chain stores. “Retail spaces once filled with independent butchers, newsagents, tobacconists, pubs, book shops, greengrocers and family-owned general stores are becoming filled with supermarket retailers, fast-food chains, and global fashion outlets,” the report says.
Two years ago, NEF released “Ghost Town Britain,” which documented the decline of downtowns as large superstores multiplied on the outskirts of communities. Now, NEF says, many of the big superstore operators, including Sainsbury and Tesco, along with global clothing and fast-food chains, are opening outlets in town centers, squeezing out still more independent businesses.
The assault on the character of Britain’s high streets, according to the report, has been aided by government planning and downtown revitalization policies that have “created a retail infrastructure hostile to small, independent businesses.”
With the release of the report, NEF is calling on the public to participate in a nationwide survey in which residents will photograph and assess their downtowns to determine whether they remain unique “home towns” or have already become “clone towns.” The results will be published early next year.
NEF conducted several pilot assessments, which are presented in the report. In Ashford, for example, NEF found that more than half the businesses downtown are chain stores. “Even Ashford Council’s head of marketing and communications, Ian Hill, finds it hard to say anything too flattering about the town,” the report notes. “The sense of identity has gone”, he admits, “There’s something soulless about the place.” Similarly, in Guildford, more than 70 percent of the stores are chains.
Some communities have managed to hang-on to their homegrown businesses. In Lewes, NEF found that more than 70 percent of the stores downtown are independent businesses. “According to local shop owners, much of this is due to strict planning regulation,” the report notes. Local rules mandate that downtown stores remain small-scale and bar chains from consolidating multiple storefronts to create spaces large enough to accommodate their standard formats.
The report warns that Clone Towns lack the economic diversity of Home Towns and are therefore more vulnerable to global market forces and economic downtowns. Clone Towns moreover do not reap the benefits of the “multiplier effect” that occurs when locally owned businesses buy goods and services from other local businesses.
The report also warns that the rise of chains, particularly bookstore and movie theater chains, is reducing consumer choice and access to independent, locally produced films, books, and other products.
To counter the trends, NEF has pulled together a coalition of small business associations and community groups called Local Works. At the top of the coalition’s agenda is a bill before the House of Commons that would give local governments more power to shape their local economies and foster sustainability.
“Clone Town Britain” endorses several specific policies, including: giving communities the power to ban formula businesses (based on local ordinances in the U.S.) and veto large-scale shopping centers; requiring superstores to comply with a mandatory code of conduct that would protect suppliers and small retailers from abusive and predatory practices; and establishing a process for analyzing the multiplier effect for different businesses and factoring this into planning and procurement policies.