By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
English Heritage says retailers should tone down their signs to prevent their brands from dominating the streetscape. Will the companies listen?
Every town centre in Britain is different... if you raise your sights above street level.
But keep your eyes on the shop windows and frontages that jostle for bypassers' attention, and you could be forgiven for believing that one High Street is much the same as another. The same brands dominate: Starbucks, McDonald's, WHSmith, Carphone Warehouse, HMV, Currys, Marks and Spencer, Waterstones, River Island... such names are fixtures the length and breadth of the country.
Thanks to the corporate identity gurus, their logos are instantly recognisable to one and all. Few would deny firms the right to market themselves, but have big and brash brands led to things getting out of hand?
English Heritage, the government body which conserves historic sites, thinks so.
Chief executive Simon Thurley says the fascias above the shops can be too bright and detract from the character of the buildings. In short - it's not so much the shops themselves that are turning our High Streets into clone towns, but how they present themselves from the outside.
"We get a lot of letters about how aggressive some of these signs are," he says. Regular shoppers know where the supermarket is and don't need to be told so vigorously.
Some companies had acted to address this, he admits, pointing to McDonald's in Bath as a good example of a building sensitive to the area.
But Mr Thurley named Tesco as one of the offenders, saying it sometimes used a large white background on signs in a red brick town.
Tesco, which recently accelerated its opening of small stores in High Streets, says it is prepared to be flexible.
"We have a corporate image and a corporate look and we need to retain some consistency around that," says Tesco's Richard Anderson. "We are also willing to speak to local people and authorities to adapt that."
Brockenhurst in the New Forest, Hampshire, was a case in point, he says. The signage was "deemed a bit too much" by locals so Tesco is changing the white face to off-white, with less window stickers.
Councillor Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, says the sign was too brash for the street. "It was both large and bright, not like the signs other shops have, and entirely intrusive.
"When companies come into traditional villages, they have to be very careful they don't overwhelm other shops in the locality through the brashness of their signs."
Shop fronts can be done tastefully
There's also a fear that Tesco's presence changes the nature of the street anyway, and could drive out other shops, says Mr Thornber.
This wider concern echoes one raised last year by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), that the UK is turning into a nation of "clone towns".
While many acknowledge the benefits to consumers in having huge retail companies conveniently close by, others say there is a cultural cost. NEF policy director Andrew Simms says the signs are part of a deeper problem.
"The aesthetic impact really does matter to people if you live in an identikit environment, because people draw their own identity from their environment and it's rather depressing to travel from town to town and find they're all the same."
The change in character can also affect tourism, he claims, because what visitors consider uniquely British is being lost.
Even if stores use signs sensitively, there are still economic and social implications of the chain store phenomenon, he says. Cash spent in independent shops is more likely to stay in the local economy, he says, and these businesses also operate as "social glue".
Beach huts on stilts or Bury of old?
"The shopkeeper becomes the holder of memories and knowledge for the local community," he says.
History suggests local resistance to corporations moving in can be futile. In 1992, the vocal residents of Hampstead in north London lost their battle to stop a McDonald's restaurant, but only after an 11-year fight.
But design is subjective, and its impact on a town's character is not something everyone agrees on.
'Beach huts on stilts'
Residents in the historic market town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk are divided over a new £80m development, led by a shopping centre and Debenhams department store.
The developers, supported by 15 out of 16 councillors, say its architects studied Bury's 11th Century street patterns for its designs.
But Anthony Platt, of campaigners Group of 32, says locals are "absolutely aghast" about what is being proposed.
"It's been described as beach huts on stilts. With their uniform roof lines, they have nothing to do with Bury. They could be anywhere."
Here is a selection of your comments. The debate is now closed.
Visited Stamford last summer and was very impressed with how the historic ambience of the town had been kept in tact. My guide informed me that Stamford town council has strict guidelines regarding commercial signs. The council has done a good job because I'll stay at there again.
Rae Ellingham, Canada
I think that each shop sign should be assessed separately, and rules made accordingly. In a large shopping centre such as Luton or Milton Keynes, these garish signs are not out of place, but put the same size and design up in say, Dartmouth, and you'd cover the road. Thankfully local councils seem to use a fair amount of common sense, and make sure that certain guidelines are adhered to.
Elaine, Letchworth Garden City, UK
When I visit another city in the UK like Glasgow, London, Manchester or Cardiff, it feels like I'm still back in Nottingham because the shops all look the same, stock the same things and sell them at the same price. There is no point going away for a days shopping any more.
Ben Holmes, England
In the US, I've seen the nickname "Generica" used to refer to towns that look like clones of each other, with their strip malls, prefab housing, and chain restaurants.
I am sure that tasteful signage costs companies more to produce than the average plastic nightmare we see on high streets the length and breadth of the country. Could this be why they aren't bothered? Why do shops only make an effort in certain towns with character? Surely attractive signs can work in every town - I believe many people would appreciate them.
I think that we should let the shopkeepers do what they want as we are a new generation and we should modernize are towns and the things around us and move with time.
nadia, united kingdom
On a recent visit to Santa Barbara, California, I was impressed by the lack of business signage. It seems they have a by-law in that city that prevents business signes from being more than 8" tall. It is certainly one of the most beautiful cities on earth.
Phillip Solanki, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
This is not a new problem. Have you ever seen photos of the Victorian age? Shops and walls are covered with adverts and signs. We generally look back with pride how the Victorians lived and what they did for us, so what is wrong now?
John Smith, UK
I'm often struck by the two-tier aspect of our increasingly homogeneous high streets. The high-impact branding of shop fascias is often surmounted by surprisingly traditional, often attractive architecture that usually remains unseen because it is above eye level and is relatively modest in character. It's like discovering the secret garden on your local high street. Gaudy corporate signage is becoming passť these days. Bright colours, bold fonts and simplified iconography do not capture the eye in the way it must have done originally, and repeated exposure is training us to ignore it. Perhaps in future, the marketing gurus and brand guardians will offer more refined, individualised fascia designs that are less obtrusive and invite interest rather than screaming for attention. Abbey has gone some way towards this, with the different colours used in its signage; maybe other companies will follow.
Dan, London, UK
Why is it so important that towns are all distinctive and different? This article appears to be assuming that it's important without actually saying why. It seems little more than a kind of misty-eyed nostalgia to me.
Robert Goforth, UK
The traditional British high street is definitely disappearing due to the power of large chains. Compare this situation with France, where each high street is full of independent shops. One difference my French girlfriend notices is that shops stay open longer in France - smaller independent shops will have to follow suit if they are to compete with the big chains.
It's also the depth of the signs, and the way they extend into the window displays. The fascia shouldn't be more than 12 (or at a push 18) inches high, and the windows should have displays in, not just be plastered with more signage.
Dunstan Vavasour, Rugby, Warwickshire
I saw the picture at the beginning of this article and I must say it looked most familiar! Corporate branding has gotten out of control, so much so that shoppers themselves are beginning to look like clones. It is alarming just how many "GAP" sweaters, Burberry baseball caps and the ever-offensive "FCUK" t-shirts one spots on the average shopping trip.
Laslo Panaflex, Belgium
SO what? A high street is a high street -- it's for shopping and commerce. If it's architecture and aesthetic pleasure that you want, then you go to historic monuments and places of natural beauty, not to your local shopping centre.
Look at any American town or city and you will see the future of the UK high streets if this problem is not taken seriously. Over the pond leading brand names and stores compete with large signs that are lit up at night and often you can not actually see the shop although large because of the sign.
Darren, Basingstoke, England
Town centres are becoming garish advertising boards, devoid of individual character. Companies need to maintain their corporate look but, if Bath can manage to do it sensitively, don't other towns deserve the same?
Matthew Bendall, England
Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Otley in Yorkshire, a charming old fashioned market town with few of the regular high street names or chain stores but many small independent retailers & a "proper" market. A rare & very refreshing change from the South East's repetitive shopping centers
Liz, Surrey, UK