Reproduced with acknowledgements to BrentfordTW8.com
Brentford is a 'Home Town' according to the widest ever Clone Town survey results released this week by leading independent think-tank NEF (new economics foundation).
The Clone Town Britain Index measures both the identity and diversity of outlets on the core of the high street. It weights more for identity because ownership is critical to the health of the local economy and community. But diversity is important, and so is also included.
Towns scoring below 50 on the scale – like neighbouring Chiswick - are classified as Clone Towns. Over half of the stores counted are chains, and there is little diversity. Towns scoring over 65 – like Brentford - are classified as Home Towns, where almost two thirds or more of the stores are independent, and there is a wide range of outlets. In between are ‘Border Towns,’ which are neither highly homogenised, nor strongly independent and diverse.
The key to success, according to Andrew Dakers, ward councillor (2006-10) and a guiding light behind the group, is the community identifying a vision of a future that it wants for itself. Constantly in sight is “world-class sustainable development that is also financially deliverable”. The group is supported on a cross-party basis.
Chief among issues addressed by Brentford’s community problem-solving has been restoring economic viability, especially in retail. Late in 2005 Jersey-based company Geronimo Ltd purchased freeholds along one side of the high street, later completing more acquisitions to emerge as the centre’s major landowner. Soon afterwards developer Ballymore Ltd’s option to buy the site was revealed, once Geronimo had obtained planning permission for a major mixed use housing and retail development.
Other community groups may have chosen to confront the developers. Brentford’s Steering Group sought dialogue instead. Representatives of Ballymore and Geronimo responded to invitations to attend all the workshops in 2007. In consequence the landowners reviewed the group’s recommendations and provided written feedback on aspects of the proposed urban design approach. In a further effort to support the community, the landowners removed boards on some empty high street shops. With the economic downturn delaying redevelopment in 2009 they started making the units available again on short leases to help bring additional vitality back to the town centre, and by May 2010 they were nearly all reoccupied.
Three years on and the Steering Group has made a number of key interventions: introducing Christmas lights to the town centre, securing funding for a small car park to capture more passing trade, launching the Wedge Card loyalty card scheme, a town centre website and the town’s first ever public event – a celebration of St George’s Day – in the historic Market Place.
Unfortunately, due to a combination of the economic downturn and the developers standing down their development team, dialogue largely stalled, giving campaigners their one serious setback. In autumn 2009 however, a new collaborative approach emerged. With funding secured from Ballymore and the local area committee S106 fund, Ballymore and the High Street Steering Group commissioned a joint workshop and report from The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. The process worked through the complex urban design required for the site and provides the basis of a brief for the urban planner that will be hired to work up a planning application for the site.
In the current economic downturn, upwards-only rent reviews are a major concern for the 50 or so independent high street traders who remain tenants of Hounslow borough. Responding to the local councillors approaches, borough officers are seeking flexible solutions and discussions are now progressing on redefining the rent frameworks. This would substitute lower turnover of tenants and reduced volatility of income in the medium-long term as a goal in place of maximising short term revenue. The proposed framework would consider the type of businesses that are missing from the retail mix when evaluating rental income potential and the marketing of vacant retail units.
Nine of the 13 West London villages were registered as clone towns. Richmond tops the table with just five independents counted on its high street, suggesting Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith will have his work cut out in his campaign to create a retail association to save local independents.
At the other end of the scale only Shepherd’s Bush in addition to Brentford registered as a home town from West London. How long Shepherd’s Bush’s ethnically diverse Goldhawk Road, with 48 out of 52 shops classified as independent by our survey, can survive remains to be seen. The recession has neatly coincided with the opening of the largest urban area indoor shopping centre in Europe – ‘Westfield London’ – right next door, complete with over 250 chains stores.
Of the 18 London villages that were resurveyed from 2005, three worsened. Hampstead, Camden and Brixton all moved from border to clone status. There was better news on nearby ‘hills’, with Streatham Hill improving from a border to a home town and Muswell Hill from a clone to a border town.