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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2007, 11:00 GMT
What shops want for customers
By David Sillito
BBC News

Oldham may not be a posh market town but its town centre is free of graffiti and looks well cared for.

But shopkeepers want more and are, as in many other towns, about to embark on a private solution to a public problem.

Victoria Sykes wants a 'nice' environment to entice customers

Victoria Sykes runs Demolition, a clothes shop on Yorkshire Street.

It used to be a place of independent shops but a large number of pubs have moved in and the character of the area has changed.

She is now paying to join a new Business Improvement District, which will tackle matters on the street.

"You could say we should leave it up to the council. But we want things not to be done in three, four, five or 10 years time. We want them now.

"People want a nice environment to walk round."

Retail undesirables

All around Britain, towns are going down a similar path.

BIDs will allow shops to clean up the streets, market an area and buy in private security.

Young boys in the street
Not welcome?

So what's driving this? It's the shopping malls. Take Bluewater in Kent: it can offer a clean, warm and trouble-free shopping environment.

Based on market research, it has not just banned hoodies.

Canvassers, leafleters, buskers and pets are also forbidden. So, too, are groups of five or more people who are not shopping. Keeping the shoppers happy relies on keeping out the people they don't want to see.

The problem is that town centres can't impose such rules.

Indeed, Oldham believes its town centre's main purpose is to be a social hub.

A place for all people to come together. But those studying the topic say people are increasingly reluctant to mix.

Shopping apartheid

Professor Richard Hayward, from the Urban Renaissance Institute at the University of Greenwich, says it is part of trend that is leading to the poor, the elderly and the young existing in a separate world from the car-owning middle aged middle class.

Shopping mall
A happier shopping experience?

"Our society is becoming very fragmented," he says.

"We don't meet people we don't want to meet... we never meet people incidentally in the street, all those people who are demonised by the state are even more demonised if they are not part of our everyday experience."

Oldham Town Centre's Masterplanning report acknowledges this, adding: "This has a particular importance in Oldham because of the tensions that there have been within the town."

More towns are now ending up with the same shops selling the same things
Keith Hunt, Minehead

In May 2001, Oldham saw three nights of violent clashes. The Oldham riots were said to be the direct result of racial tension between the area's Asian and white communities, the underlying factor being social division and poverty.

The question is how far Oldham has now taken on the methods of the mall to entice shoppers back in to the heart of the town's communal life.

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