A GLANCE along Winchester High Street says it all. HMV, Debenhams, Sainsbury's, Next, River Island, Clarks - the list of chain shops goes on.

Some people fear it is a sign that Winchester has become an identikit city, no different from Southampton, Basingstoke or Portsmouth.

Others see the city managing to hang on to its identity through a network of small, specialist independent shops offering something a bit different.

At a town forum members of the public expressed worries that Winchester is turning into "any old city".

Small independent shops which the council says are so important to the city's identity have already been forced out of the High Street and Brooks Centre, where rates have become too much for small businesses.

"If we're absolutely honest Winchester is in danger of losing its customers," said city councillor Eileen Berry.

"There must be overriding reasons - parking is one, and the diversity of shops on offer is another."

Ray Ballard, owner of Magpie Boot and Shoe Repairs on St Thomas Street, said: "Rent on the High Street is just too high. We need a variety of shops on the High Street. There's nothing there any more, people just go elsewhere.

"Big chains can afford the rates, small businesses just can't do it."

Small shops coming into the city are finding the only places they can afford are in side streets.

"It's little shops like us that give individuality," said Delia Bolden, owner of newly-opened The Orange Room in St Thomas Street.

"Winchester is just so wonderful, if people explore they will find little havens like us. But the little streets aren't very well lit," she added.

Sarah Levinge owns Reads of Winchester, a small sewing machine and supplies shop on St Thomas Street.

"We're such a specialist shop people will look us up in the phone book," she said. "We do get some people walking past and dropping in but not many.

"I'd like to think Winchester is still special and individual. It has more charm about it than some of the bigger places like Southampton."

The city council hopes the new multi-million-pound Broadway-Friarsgate development will help Winchester keep its individuality.

"Winchester is not and never will be just 'any old city'," said Robin Cooper, director of development services.

"We take great care to see that Winchester's traditions and heritage sits comfortably alongside new builds, and why the council and developers are making sure that the new development will be of the highest quality."