Is Norwich just another clone town?

According to research more than 40pc of Britain's town centres are 'clones', all offering the same identikit collection of national chainstores. In the latest feature in the EDP2's Shop Local campaign, EMMA LEE finds out how Norwich compares.

According to research more than 40pc of Britain's town centres are 'clones', all offering the same identikit collection of national chainstores.

In the latest feature in the EDP2's Shop Local campaign, EMMA LEE finds out how Norwich compares.

You're walking down a high street. There's a branch of Next, a McDonalds, a Starbucks, an Argos, a Marks and Spencer.

It all seems reassuringly familiar. But you could be in any town in the country.


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There isn't a threat that our high streets could become clones of each other, offering up the same identikit mixture of multi-national coffee shops and fashion stores - it's already happened.

According to independent think tank the New Economics Foundation, 42pc of the country's towns are already what they term clone towns, with the retail make-up dominated by chains.

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A further 29pc were termed border towns, which still have a range of independent retail hanging on but could easily go the same way.

Some may argue that the proliferation of chain stores offers the consumer more choice - these are stores which have the economic clout to stock a wider range of goods.

But isn't it actually narrowing choice when you can buy the same cup of Starbucks skinny latte in any city from Kuala Lumpur to Vancouver or the same Gap hoodie in London or New York?

Ruth Potts of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) says that clone towns have emerged in parallel to another economic phenomenon - the ghost town.

“We used the term ghost town to define communities where there were very few shops and services left - the post office and corner shops had closed and we looked at the impact on local communities,” she explains.

“What we noticed in the areas where there was still economic activity was that local independent stores were being replaced with bland, identikit chain stores.

And we came up with the term clone town to define them.”

According to the NEF's Ghost Town Britain report:

t General stores are closing at the rate of one a day.

t Between 1997 and 2002 specialist stores, such as butchers, bakers and fishmongers, shut at a rate of 50 per week.

t Twenty traditional (non-chain) pubs close per month.

t Between 1992 and 2002 Britain lost a third of its bank branch network, leaving almost 1,000 communities with no access to a local bank.

Because small independent retailers often operate on much narrower profit margins than the chains, just losing a few regular customers can have a devastating impact on their business.

Ms Potts says that they believe there are three reasons why cloning has a negative impact on communities.

“Something very different happens when you spend your money at a chain store to at a little local independent store. At a large chain store a large proportion of what you are spending will leave the local area almost immediately.

An independent store will tend to source their goods locally keeping more money in the area for longer,” she says.

Another thing NEF's research shows is that local shops provide the 'social glue' that pull communities together.

“The owner of a local independent store is far more likely to be able to spend time with customers and act as a source of local knowledge and keep an eye out for vulnerable members of the public. Chain stores want to get as many people into the store as quickly as possible,” Ms Potts explains.

Thirdly, local independent shops are good for the local 'eco system'.

“They're more resilient. If a town is dominated by just one or two stores and one closes it has a devastating impact,” she says.

Exeter won the dubious accolade of being named the country's top clone town, with Stafford, Middlesbrough, Chelt-enham and Burton upon Trent also making the list.

Bury St Edmunds was another example of a clone town.

The report said: “Whilst in the 1950s there were only a few chain stores, such as Woolworths, Boots and WH Smith, chain stores now represent more than 60pc of the outlets on the main high streets, most of which are clothing retailers.

A flourishing street market every Wednesday and Saturday takes away some of the clone town feeling, but if you want to find unique shops as well as the public library and other key services you will now have to walk further from the town's historic centre.”

Hebden Bridge was the number one 'home' town - NEF's definition of a town where the high street has retained its own identity. Hadleigh, in Suffolk, was also named as another good example.

t So how does Norwich compare?

NEF's research was restricted to places with a population of between 10,000 and 100,000, so the city wasn't included in the 2005 report.

But the EDP's own snapshot survey of the city centre shows a mixed picture.

On paper it is a clone town.

In Gentleman's Walk, one of the city's main shopping streets, you've got a mixture of national chains including Starbucks, HMV, Caffe Nero, Dorothy Perkins and Primark and The Mall, previously known as Castle Mall, is nearby.

But in the same area you've got England's biggest six-day-a-week open air market (which has recently had more than £4.5m spent on it) and the Art Nouveau Royal Arcade whose tenants include the toyshop Langley's and the Colman's Mustard Shop.

The city has five department stores, of which one, Jarrolds, which was established in 1823, has twice been voted the UK's top independent store.

And the Norwich Lanes, an area made up almost entirely of independent retailers, is a stone's throw away.

The traders in the area started marketing themselves as the 'Lanes' and created their own identity, like in Brighton, to promote themselves as an alternative retail destination to Chapelfield, the city's second

indoor shopping mall, which opened in autumn 2005.

And a bit further out of the centre there are what are termed as 'secondary' shopping areas such as St Benedict's Street, Upper St Giles Street, Magdalen Street and picturesque Elm Hill, with its cobbles and Tudor architecture which all have an array of independent shops.

Norwich City Council's head of economic development Chris Popplewell says they are keen to spread the shop local message.

“By buying goods locally you are helping the environment and goods won't have generated the transport costs. Shopping locally also helps the local economy as it recycles the money in the area,” she says.

“Norwich is the very opposite of a clone city. It has a diverse mix of independent and specialist shops and this is one of the reasons Norwich ranks in the top five UK shopping destinations.”

With shopping now a major leisure activity, latest official figures show that Norwich shops generate £1.17bn a year (it's one of the top five retail centres in the UK) and helps retain jobs within the city. It also helps to make the city enticing to tourists - six million visit Norwich each year.

The low-cost airline, Flybe, is bringing an increasing number of visitors into the city and this, combined with the opening of a number of new hotels within the city centre, is helping to make Norwich a top short break destination.

Michael Nutt, Managing Director of Visit Norwich, says that for the city be a draw to visitors it's vital to have a mixture of both big retail names and local independents, while retaining the city's character.

“It's an attractive place to shop because of the variety of what it's got to offer, which is a fantastic choice of big high street names and independent stores in places like the Norwich Lanes, Elm Hill and Timberhill. St Benedict's Street has got lots of music stores.

“And there are some great boutiques on Lower Goat Lane and St Gregory's Alley.

“It makes for a unique and different shopping experience. It's not just about doing different.

“It's about offering a shopping experience that's essentially very enjoyable.”

t We know what Norwich city centre has to offer - but as Keiron Pim discovers, there's plenty to explore off the beaten track.

It might seem a bit down at heel on first inspection but the Magdalen Street area is one of Norwich's real gems - and that is mainly down to its array of independent local traders. Make your way into “Norwich over the water” by taking the Fye Bridge across the Wensum and, tucked away inside the street's Georgian and Tudor buildings, you'll find an eclectic range of shops selling anything from exotic spices to Egyptian-style sarcophagi. It's decidedly odd in places - just why there's a cartoon cat inside a telly painted high on the wall above the Beatniks CD shop is anyone's guess - but that's part of why people love it. It's about as far as you could imagine from the franchise-filled cloned high streets that litter so many cities. Yes, it's a little shabby in places but its unstuffy, down to earth nature is part of the appeal: this is real old Norwich. Visit Howard and Son at Fye Bridge for choice cuts of fish and game, and delve into Ajman Miah's wonderful Asian grocery for every kind of herb and spice, sauce and seasoning you could think of. Anglian Fashion Fabrics' helpful staff will guide you through a range of furnishing and fashion materials that's hard to beat. And if you look closely there are plenty of quirky, beautiful remnants of Norwich's past - the signs to old Norwich yards like Zipfel's Court, the mosaic entrances to certain shops, or the gilt signage of George Clapham's Hairdressers and Perfumers, now home to the Norwich Shaver Centre with its charming window display of traditional shaving brushes.

When it comes to cheap secondhand books and clothes the large Oxfam charity shop is a treasure trove (okay, so it's not an independent trader but it's still a worthy recipient of your cash), and the nearby Out of Time record shop is pure heaven for anyone who loves the sound of vinyl.

Towards the north end of the street, Chris and Andy at Progeny Computers offer a personal and friendly service and won't bombard you with bits of computing kit that you neither need nor understand.

And as for eating out - well, walk down the road in the evening and you'll probably catch a delicious waft of curry emanating from one of the many Indian restaurants, but there are less well known treats such as the Torero tapas restaurant or The Street café, purveyors of a mighty fine full English breakfast and plenty of other delicious grub besides. Anyone who turns their nose up at this slightly scruffy but utterly distinctive patch of Norwich is missing out.

t If you are interested in finding out how your town scores in the New Economic Foundation's Clone Town Britain survey visit www.neweconomics.org and download a survey form.

t For information about the Shop Norwich campaign visit www.shopnorwich.co.uk

t What do you think? Have your say at www.edp24.co.uk/forums

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