A few weeks ago I managed to upset the good people of Hereford by calling their city a "clone town", a judgement based on the overwhelming number of chain stores - Starbucks, McDonald's, Virgin Megastore and the like - that have hounded out vir tually all independent business. Although one correspondent has threatened to report me to the mayor (are they going to burn an effigy of me outside Gap?) I stand by the piece. The point was not to knock Hereford in particular, but to lament the way in which so many of our towns are losing their identity under the homogenising steamroller of global consumerism.
A prescient report from the New Economics Foundation, entitled Clone Town Britain, lists my home town - Oxford - as a hybrid, part clone, part unique. This is accurate: a visit to the vibrant Covered Market, with its craft shops, cafés and excellent butchers, gives a different impression from a walk down the crowded clone arteries of Cornmarket and Queen Street. Venture into the Clarendon or Westgate Centres, with their Nexts, Gaps and Coffee Republics, and you are sucked into a placeless globocorp, where the dreaming spires and students on bicycles seem as far away as Kathmandu.
The city council, however, is not happy. It feels that it is unacceptable for Oxford to be a mere hybrid. Our citizens - sorry, "consumers" - deserve the full Monty. We need total clone status, and we need it now. The council recently commissioned consultants to help identify gaps in its "retail strategy"; the wise men reported that what Oxford needs is another department store. The council feels that Oxford needs to be "competitive" with neighbouring Swindon. Unless we have as much acreage devoted to mega-malls as they do, our consumers might motor down the A420 to spend their money there. The conclusion: unless we convert ourselves into a Slough with spires, our economy is doomed.
So we need more malls. But where to site them? Out-of-town retail development is out of fashion, so the town centre must be sacrificed. A large area around the old prison has already been redeveloped, a great success for the clone revolution. Among the upmarket outlets of Carluccio's, La Tasca, Pizza Express and, er, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, there is not a single independent outlet to be found. But wait - it's still not enough. We need tens of thousands more square metres of retail space to make Oxford really come alive. Luckily the council has some land it can offer, behind the existing Westgate Centre, a grim series of car parks. These will make way for a mall double the size of the current one, with space enough for 90 new shops, bars and restaurants. The City Library will be refurbished, but will have (ahem) a little less space for books. An underground multi-storey car park will be constructed so that no one has to suffer the indignity of getting the bus. Maybe we can even tempt Swindon's consumers to drive all the way along the A420 to Oxford. That'll teach them.
The developer - the Westgate Partnership (of Capital Shopping Centres plc and LaSalle Investment Management) - even provides for biodiversity in its planning application. "A rooftop garden at the heart of the development will provide a local habitat for wildlife and a unique location for a restaurant operator." Oxford's pigeons will be delighted. And we get our desperately needed department store: a four-storey John Lewis will be plonked on Thames Street. Motorists will be able to get lifts from the car park without going outside and breathing in everyone else's fumes.
I went to the council to view the plan, following an appeal from a Green councillor urging objectors to write to the planning minister, Yvette Cooper, and ask for the government to pull the decision while there is time. The receptionist piled up the files on the table (the document runs to 6,000 pages), and I scanned through them. You can also go to www.westgateoxford.co.uk.
To call the proposed building monstrous would be to do an injustice to its ugliness. It is worse: this development is an airport-style architectural abortion of exceptional vileness. One could ask, given that we have maybe ten years to save the planet, whether a new temple to consumerism is the best use of £300m. One could ask, but the council would have no answer.