Clone Town Britain survey: results reveals national identity crisis

06 June 2005

42 per cent of UK towns are clone towns, a further 26 per cent are under threat

Clone Town Britain: The survey results, released today, Monday 6 June 2005, by nef (the new economics foundation) reveals for the first time how far Britain has gone to becoming a nation of clone towns.

A clone town is a place where the individuality of high street shops has been replaced by a monochrome strip of global and national chains, somewhere that could easily be mistaken for dozens of bland town centres across the country. By contrast, a home town has a high street that retains its individual character and is instantly recognisable and distinctive to the people who live there, as well as to those who visit. A border town is on the cusp between a home town and a clone town.

Of the towns surveyed, Clone Town Britain reveals that 42 per cent can be classified as clone towns, and a further 26 per cent of ‘border’ towns under threat.

The report reveals for the first time, the balance between clone towns, border towns and home towns in the UK. Clone Town Britain shows how retail spaces once filled with a thriving mix of independent butchers, newsagents, tobacconists, pubs, bookshops, greengrocers and family owned general stores are fast being filled with faceless supermarket retailers, fast-food chains, mobile phone shops and global fashion outlets.

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”, says nef Policy Director, Andrew Simms. 

  • Of the towns surveyed; 42 per cent are clone towns, 26 per cent border towns and 33 per cent home towns. 
  • Of the London ‘villages’ surveyed; 48 per cent were clone towns, 19 per cent border towns, and 33 per cent home towns.  
  • The survey also revealed that clone town high streets have a smaller range of categories of shop than border, or home towns. 

Britain doesn’t have to become a nation of clone towns. The homogenisation of high streets is not benign or inevitable. Just as regulatory changes have allowed it, the right changes can begin to turn back the tide. As the survey results show; there is still time for action to protect the identity of our towns, and to prevent our border towns becoming clone towns. By promoting local shops we can enhance diversity, and increase the vitality and stability of local economies. That way we can begin to reverse the trend in the towns that have already been overtaken by clones,” says nef Policy Director, Andrew Simms

Clone Town Britain outlines a range of policy solutions, which, if implemented could begin to reverse the process. Amongst other recommendations, the report calls for action to: 

  • Use planning law to promote opportunity for locally-owned stores. The negotiation between developers and planners over granting planning permissions – usually about low-cost housing – could be extended to make retail developers guarantee affordable premises for locally-owned stores. 
  • Introduce a retail takeover moratorium: there should be a moratorium on further takeovers of existing chains either by Tesco, or any of the other three largest multiple retailers in either the supermarket or convenience store sector.
  • Apply a limit of eight per cent market share: the four leading supermarkets should divest their interests above the eight per cent threshold nationally, or in any regional retail market – the threshold that the OFT believes to be damaging to the retail supply chain. 
  • Make complaints to the OFT confidential: supermarkets have a monopolistic stranglehold over suppliers, but the Office of Fair Trading rarely receives complaints – because suppliers fear retaliation.  An independent and confidential watchdog, to allow suppliers to complain in confidence is long overdue.

The report also recommends learning from the US, which is already further along the road to becoming a nation of clone towns than the UK.  But, we don’t have to let things go as far, and can learn from the myriad of responses already implemented in the US. For example: 

  • The ‘Keep Louisville weird’ campaign, which has grown out of the American Midwest to encourage shopping in local stores. 
  • New York, declared a ‘new frontier’ by Wal-Mart in January 2005, looks set to pass legislations that would require any big-box retailer with more than 85,000sq feet to face a licensing review that would force them to specify their impact on the community. 
  • Local bans on ‘formula’ business, defined as businesses that adopt standardised services, methods of operation, decor, uniforms, architecture, or other features virtually identical to businesses elsewhere.