Tea, cakes and mobile phones: the secret of a boom town

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The Independent Online
FOR years Banbury was known simply as a "tea and wee" stop along the A41 for travellers heading towards the theatrical delights of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford or the dreaming spires of Oxford.

But despite its reputation as the town that everyone simply passes through, this market town of 40,000 inhabitants has just been named as the most prosperous town for business in the country, with the highest proportion of profit-making businesses in the UK.

At the other end of the scale, Sittingbourne, in north Kent, came last at 190th, much to the chagrin of the town's local council.

The research was based on a database of "key British enterprises" gathered by the business information consultancy, Dun & Bradstreet, which contains details of the 50,000 largest companies in the UK, along with building societies and firms of solicitors and accountants.

Philip Mellor, a senior analyst at the company, said Banbury's success was based on its communication links and quality of life.

"A lot of companies have moved there over the last three or four years and that has had a knock-on effect for many of the companies that were already there," he said. "It is close to both London and the Midlands and is situated right next to the M40 which means that it is well placed for distribution.

"Another reason is that its market is basically domestic so it has not been affected in the same way as businesses which rely heavily on exports."

Chris White, president of Banbury's Chamber of Commerce, said that unemployment was only two per cent and the success of companies relocating to the town, had greatly increased the standard of living.

He added that the demand for housing had increased greatly and there were plans for more than 4000 houses by 2011.

But while the inhabitants of Banbury were delighted by the survey, the residents of Sittingbourne, where unemployment was last month below the national average of 4.9 per cent, were less than pleased.

Peter Jolley, the economic development manager for Swale Council, which includes Sittingbourne, said the town has "never had it so good".

"There are a lot of very successful businesses here and the retail side is really buoyant," he said. The area makes pounds 86m a year from tourism, but whereas much of that came from on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, nowadays it is more likely to be relatives of the inmates in one of the three prisons on the nearby Isle of Sheppey stopping for refreshments.

"One of the main problems is that we do not have the space to expand - to the north of the town there are 28,000 acres that have been designated as a special site for migrating birds and we cannot develop it."

A Tale of two towns

Population

Banbury 40,000

Sittingbourne 37,000

Unemployment

Banbury 2 per cent

Sittingbourne 4.4 per cent

(national average 4.9 per cent)

Crime (year ending March 1998)

Burglaries in Banbury down from 825 to 747. Burglaries in Sittingbourne down from 1,248 to 860

History

Banbury's Ride a Cock Horse rhyme widely recognised by the 1780s.

Sittingbourne mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Industry

Banbury's top three companies: Kraft, Jacob and Suchard (employs 1,100), Vodafone Retail UK (700), Alex Lawrie Factors (640).

Sittingbourne - Sittingbourne Paper Company (500), New Thames Paper Company (400), Milton Pipes (200).

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