Costa Coffee: a threat to Albert Road’s ethos?

Up and down the country, local shopping centres and high streets are beginning to look almost identical. Each one has the same old clothing retailers, same old fast food joints and same old coffee shops.

Albert Road in Southsea, Portsmouth is a notable exception. Instead of having endless chain stores, it boasts half a mile of shops which are almost all owned by independent traders.

This is what many claim gives the road its unique atmosphere, and the eclectic mix of weird and wonderful shops have also ensured a quirky and trendy reputation, which in turn attracts an equally quirky and trendy clientele.

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Instead of Primark and New Look, there is Dress Code, a 90s-themed clothes shop which proudly caters for both “dudes” and “chicks”.

Instead of Burger King and KFC, Albert Road-regulars often eat at the nearby Pie and Vinyl. As the name suggests, the establishment sells both pies and vinyl records, a winning combination that has seen the restaurant become massively popular.

And instead of Café Nero, the area has Café Au Cinema, which is ideal for coffee lovers and film buffs due to the fact that it is both an independent cinema as well as a coffee house.

In fact, there is a plethora of independent coffee shops to choose from including Aurora, Home Coffee, Hunter Gatherer and more. Up until now, they have all existed in peace and harmony, but something has threatened to change that.

Plans have emerged for Costa Coffee, a multinational chain, to turn a currently empty shop right in the heart of Albert Road into a new branch. Predictably, there has been uproar.

“Our individual shops reflect our own character and they inspire people.”

It isn’t just the businesses of local traders being threatened; the ethos of the area is also seen to be in danger.

Councillor for Central Southsea Suzy Horton said: “I think particularly where you have a planning emphasis which talks about encouraging independent shops, it’s like a misfit in the area.

“I understand that if these chain shops go in somewhere, there is evidence that it demonstrates that there’s faith in the area because they’re going to have the footfall.

“But in actual fact, I would say that needs to be second to encouraging small, independent and local businesses going in there which would reinforce the ethos of the area.”

The worries that Horton has are shared by Jenni Catlow, who owns vintage shop Tango Tea and is chair of the Albert Road Traders Association. She has previously led a successful campaign to stop a McDonald’s going into the area.

Catlow said: “We were all horrified. We pride ourselves in keeping this road for independents and to be different and unusual.

“Our individual shops reflect our own character and they inspire people. Creativity should be allowed to develop and independents should be allowed to have a space of their own.

“I just think they’re being stifled out of everything, so we do really want to remain independent and we want to stay different.”

However, there is another side to the story, as there are some undeniable benefits that the new Costa development will bring to the area. For one, it will create jobs for local people, and even Horton admitted that she would rather have a chain store than an empty shop.

“I was surprised because of the emphasis on independent shops,” Horton said. “However, that has to be balanced with the empty shop scenario, where you have whole areas of it.”

“My opinion would be against it going in there, but I understand the economics of it. It still would have been much more preferable for another independent shop to go in there.”

Whether or not Costa Coffee will damage the ethos as much as some residents claim remains to be seen, however one thing is for sure: a high street as refreshingly unique as Albert Road is definitely worth protecting.

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