Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Keep London Quirky; as Retail Rents Rocket, Homogeneous Chain Stores Are Benefiting at the Expense of the One-Off Independent. without Action, Our City Will Soon Be Just Another 'Clonetown'

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Keep London Quirky; as Retail Rents Rocket, Homogeneous Chain Stores Are Benefiting at the Expense of the One-Off Independent. without Action, Our City Will Soon Be Just Another 'Clonetown'

Article excerpt

Byline: JONATHAN FREEDLAND

ARE YOU a planner or a panicker? Did you do your Christmas shopping six months ago, leaving a neat pile of pre-wrapped gifts ready to go? Or have you blocked out all thought of the task ahead, putting it off to a last-minute rush after work tomorrow or even on Saturday, the Christmas equivalent of one minute to midnight?

Either way, you may have had this worry: what if you buy the same present as everyone else? What if you pick out a DVD at HMV or a sweater at Gap that someone else has bought for the same person? What if your choices look unoriginal or, worse, impersonal?

It's highly likely. After all, there's little to stop us buying the same things - because, in today's London, we're all buying from the same shops.

Campaigners call it the rise and rise of the "clonetown", the Identikit high streets packed with the same shops, same coffee shops and same banks - on and on until one place is indistinguishable from the other. The phenomenon has spread across Britain, so that a street in Exeter is depressingly identical to one in Carlisle - both with branches of Next, Orange and Starbucks - but it is no less visible in London. The capital, which once regarded itself with pride as a collection of distinct villages, now risks turning into one big clonetown.

Some of the city's most famous shopping streets are coming under this all too earthly Attack of the Clones.

Portobello market in Notting Hill is the latest to see rent prices rocket, forcing out one-off local traders to make way for big-shot chains. The famous 192 restaurant has lost out to a pizza chain, while the galleries and antiques dealers of Westbourne Grove have been replaced by the likes of Whistles and LK Bennett. Much-loved local shops - selling stationery or secondhand books - can't hold on when their rent is jacked up to [pounds sterling]120,000 a year.

Should we care? Maybe this is just the onward march of the market.

Besides, if we're honest, we must quite like the big high-street chains or they wouldn't be in business. There is a convenience to having a familiar, established brand around the corner. And while we may romanticise, say, the local greengrocers of old, we also know that today that can mean a few manky carrots on sale outside a newsagents - when we'd rather stock up at a gleaming Tesco Express.

Even so, while we may appreciate the presence of at least some of the big players, the picture changes when they dominate. The aesthetic objection is the most obvious: it's a dull city in which every street looks the same.

There are sound economic arguments, too. Local, one-off businesses have a beneficial "multiplier" effect: they're more likely to use local suppliers, from accountants to window cleaners, than a national chain. While a successful branch of Starbucks helps Starbucks, a thriving local coffee shop helps the whole neighbourhood.

Less obviously, the local shop provides a kind of social glue. …

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