For those who are reluctant travellers, it is reassuring to know that once you have seen Birmingham you have seen it all. Or Reading, or Exeter or Lancaster for that matter.
The tourist, packing the English Towns bit of their world trip into a couple of days, needs no longer feel regret. Jet lagged or not, they have a good reason for not knowing whether they are in Guildford or Gateshead.
According to a New Economics Foundation report, Britain has become a nation of 'clone towns'. Every high street has the same shops, and therefore the same shop fronts. Our devotion to Boots, WH Smith, McDonald's etc has resulted in indistinguishable shopping centres.
Birmingham has tried. If you look up, you will still see the largely nineteenth century diversity of the top floors.
There are external unique icons like Selfridges and the Bull but I can't think of any non-chain stores in the centre of the city. Suburbs too have very few independently owned shops and street after street has the same banks, building societies, estate agents and charity shops.
Worse still, when you go inside these shops you discover that the difference between the look of one and another is an illusion. Whatever the colour and logo on the outside, they all sell exactly the same brands inside. I went into Birmingham city centre looking for a particular make of saucepan.
(My husband's birthday present. I promise you it is what he wants. I feel a bit mean now asking for that weekend in Bilbao.)
I went in four, apparently different, department stores that all purport to sell kitchenware, and they have identical ranges in each. Not the one I wanted.
It is in part our fault. We are not adventurous or even confident consumers. In Europe, regular markets still flourish in small towns. There are town opera houses and theatres, not just cinemas passing on multi-national blockbusters. There are local economies supported by local people. In our chain stores, goods are rarely locally sourced and although they provide employment, the profits they make do not go to the region.
But chain stores are not thriving at the moment. Seize the hour, local politicians! Look at planning laws and rates and woo the truly local economy, where massive profit for shareholders, is not what it is all about.
We, the consumers, must be braver too. I was in a part of London I don't know the other week, early for a meeting and wanting a coffee. There was one, I imagine independently owned, cafe on the street and a Starbuck's. Into the familiar Starbuck's I walk for my cappuccino. It is served in an identical mug, I sit in the identical chair at the identical table to the one in the Bullring.
May be it is something to do with a statistic that claims 78% of British people fear they will get food poisoning in a restaurant. Cloning is safe. If you have survived one Starbuck cappuccino, you can survive others.
Very safe, but very dull. We think of local as tacky, dubious and unhygienic so we go for the chains. Local needs to mean distinctive, vibrant, smart and just as inclusive.
* Sarah Evans is a freelance writer specialising in community and social affairs topics.