CONSERVATION AND RETAILING: There’s more to Britain’s high street story than ‘clone towns’ and ‘big box’ outlets

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25 Mar 2015

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Far from creating homogenous high streets, many big British retailers have played an important role in conservation, according to research by Jessica Gray to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference. Indeed, she argues, popular narratives of ‘clone towns’ obscure the role of retailers in cultivating greater diversity and nuance in Britain’s towns and high streets.

Her study of store development in the 1970s and 1980s finds that a number of projects actively embraced aspects of existing local architectural and environmental features. Conservation projects helped to bolster the image and presence of retailers – so that conservation was not simply an imposition but a commercial tool. As she says:

‘Conservation was continually mediated through a commercial lens and in 1970s and 1980s Britain, large multiple retailers harnessed wider calls for greater sensitivity to existing environments because it made commercial sense to do so.

‘Retailers have the capacity to enhance and facilitate diversity in Britain’s towns and high streets. They have played a key role before and can again if the central partnership between local, national and commercial entities is rekindled.’

The author begins by noting that the relationship between retailers and conservation remains largely ignored: it is subsumed by reproachful narratives of ‘clone towns’ and ‘big box’ outlets. But her research shows that the issue of conservation increasingly influenced the store development of British retailers during the 1970s and 1980s. The pragmatism required of retailers to function within a rapidly changing urban landscape ensured that conservation was a force that could not be ignored.

Conservation in its various forms increasingly became a central planning concern. The case studies of two Marks and Spencer planning applications, in Rickmansworth and Twickenham, highlight the influence brought to bear on retailers through the local and national planning matrix. Conservation was not simply adopted in a linear fashion but rather negotiated by wider conditions.

The continuing pressure for land in central areas, and restrictive attitudes towards out-of-town developments, ensured that retailers had to adapt to a more complex operating environment; such a climate called for greater sensitivity to the built and natural environment. Far from ensuring homogenous high streets, retailers were called on to acknowledge and preserve existing environments within their store projects and were keen to be seen to do so.

A number of the store projects undertaken by Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s at this time embraced aspects of existing local architectural and environmental features. Marks and Spencer’s store projects in Ayr and Yeovil and Sainsbury’s developments in Canterbury and Wolverhampton, attest to the fact that the design of retail stores was more sensitive and amenable to changing tastes and attitudes than has been acknowledged.

Store development at this time was increasingly a collaborative affair, between a number of local and national actors. Organisations like the Royal Commission for Fine Arts actively worked with Marks and Spencer in Ayr in 1974, to enhance the new store’s contribution to the existing character of the town. Consequently, it is evident that increasingly popularised narratives of ‘clone towns’ obscure the role of retailers, in cultivating greater diversity and nuance in towns and high streets.

Conservation projects helped to bolster the image and presence of retailers. Conservation was not simply an imposition but a commercial tool, which enabled retailers to navigate the complex demands of modern day retailing and the growing calls for greater sensitivity towards the environment.

Store development projects that conserved local heritage made a clear commercial statement. Sainsbury’s new 1984 Canterbury store, echoed the spire of the medieval Canterbury cathedral. Sainsbury’s decision to confer on the store an architectural link between it and the grandeur and presence of the cathedral, emphasised a belief in the commercial value of conserving existing architectural motifs and incorporating them into the aesthetic of the retail store.

Conservation allowed retailers to communicate and advertise their brand within the urban landscape. Moreover, high streets and town centres offered a unique commercial textuality to the retailers operating in them.

Due to the centrality of such sites geographically, and figuratively in terms of their perceived place at the heart of communities, high street and town centre locations conveyed a sense of status and sentiment not afforded other, more peripheral, sites. Central areas presented an image of domestic, inclusive, socially conscious, retailing and those that traded in them inhabited such characteristics by association.


Jessica Gray
University of Leeds

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