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'

Published in the Evening Standard 22 December 2005

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 with the cash to pay. The famous 192 restaurant has lost out to a pizza chain, while the galleries and antiques dealers around Westbourne Grove have been replaced by the likes of Whistles and LK Bennett. Much loved local shops ? selling stationery or second hand books ? can't hold on when their rent is jacked up to #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. Where I used to live, in Clerkenwell, Raj the newsagent acted as an unofficial communal noticeboard, the only person in the area who knew everybody. I now live in Stoke Newington, where Church Street is one of those increasingly rare London delights ? a street entirely free of big-name chains. The local bike shop, Two Wheels Good, feels less like a business than a community service, one where customers are treated like fellow residents rather than mere sources of revenue. There's none of what Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation, which recently published a report on clonetowns, calls the ?hideous codification of human interaction? - a reference to the scripted manuals which tell chain store staff the precise phrases they are allowed to use when talking to customers.

The distinct, one-off shop is part of what makes London work. They even come together to form clusters, often of the most unexpected kind. Tottenham Court Road has cheap electronic goods on one side, furniture on the other. Soho has a little knot of vinyl record shops, acting as a magnet more powerful than one shop could ever be on its own. And if Soho has its own sex industry, there is a sub-economy on Peter Street: a cluster of stores specialising in S &M gear. Not exactly Dorothy Perkins and the Woolwich ? and impossible to find in clonetown.

So how to preserve the peculiar and quirky, while keeping the juggernauts at bay? Plenty of retailers look to Marylebone High Street as the model, a gorgeous area of cheese shops and boutiques with barely an Accessorize in sight. That feat was pulled off by the good sense of the local freeholder, the De Walden estate, which saw the financial sense in keeping out tacky chain stores, watching the area's reputation rise ? so that it might reap the future benefit in premium rents.

Most areas are not so lucky. They couldn't draw the same upmarket shops and they are run by the council rather than a private estate ? and councils have no power to keep the lid on rents. But there's still plenty that can be done. The Friends of Portobello campaign want to make theirs the first business conservation area in the UK, preserving shops rather like listed buildings. Tony Travers, the London specialist at the LSE, likes the idea, already underway, of retailers clubbing together to form Business Improvement Districts which can then devise Marylebone-style strategies for their area. Personally, I'd like to see a revival of a now lapsed US scheme ? taxing chain stores so that the more outlets they have, the higher tax they pay. That would even things up a bit.

None of this can happen, though, unless there is political will. Local authorities, however well meaning, don't have the muscle to stop the onward march of the clones. Only national government can do that. And they won't ? unless we find a way to tell them to.