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Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Send in the clones

Last Saturday, I visited one of the finest greasy caffs in London, if not the whole of Britain: the New Piccadilly in Soho. (My passion for the traditional caff was revealed in this earlier posting).

New Piccadilly (address: 8 Denman Street, London W1, just off Piccadilly Circus) is one of the last survivors of the once-commonplace 1950s Italian-run cafe, with Festival of Britain-inspired decor. Nothing much has changed since it first opened in 1951 and it remains a riot of yellow formica. As well as variations on the English breakfast theme, it serves a variety of old-fashioned Anglo-Italian dishes plus a tempting range of rib-sticking sponge puddings with custard.

Sadly, the New Piccadilly is threatened with closure. Westminster City Council has approved plans to redevelop this corner of Soho, and an imminent rent review is likely to price out the last remaining independent traders. Instead, the area will probably become populated with yet more fast food chains and the Starbucks/Nero/Costa-style chain coffee bars, turning Denman Street into another retail clone.

New Economics Foundation has recently drawn attention to the phenomenon of the clone town - towns and cities whose centres have lost all individuality, consisting of a bland and sterile strip of global and national chains. Local traders are driven out, and one High Street looks pretty much like another.

Shouldn't we be celebrating this triumph of free market forces? Isn't this what the customer wants? As Andrew Simms, policy director of NEF, points out,

"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."
Liberal Democrats in charge of local authorities should use their planning powers to promote opportunities for locally-owned stores. The rest of us should get down to the New Piccadilly before it closes for good.

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