So what ails Aylesbury?: A wave of vicious crime has hit Middle England

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MARKET SQUARE is the cobbled hub of Aylesbury, Bucks. Once, it swarmed with horse fairs, duck breeders, cattle buyers. Several inns and a wooden stocks provided entertainment in what was, in the words of a 17th-century chronicler, a place 'that walloweth in her wealth, and is lusty, firm and fat, and holds her youthful strength'.

It walloweth less so today, despite the square's domination by four building societies and three travel agencies. Townsfolk worry about murder, armed robbery, abduction, and what the local paper last week described as a 'drugs time bomb' in Aylesbury schools.

In a recent economic survey, the Henley Centre, a London business consultancy, described Buckingham's chief town as part of the heartland of England, and likely to prosper in the next five years. If Middle England, as recently described by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, exists at all, it is surely here. Yet in Market Square, which hasn't seen livestock for 40 years and retains only one pub, a rosy futureis hard to discern in what has been criticised as the 'harsh and restless concrete' of Aylesbury's 'insensitive modern development'.

'I don't know what's happening to us,' said Roma Wood, who lives in Wendover but has shopped in Aylesbury since the Fifties and seen its adjacent farmland gobbled up by housing estates. She was in Friar's Square shopping precinct, off Market Square, the kind of complex that has made the pedestrian zones of Britain's towns uniform: Mothercare, Dorothy Perkins, BhS, Thornton's chocolates, the Health Shop - all under glass and fake bougainvillea. 'I wouldn't go out at night in Aylesbury,' Mrs Wood said. 'I don't know what the solution is. Get everyone back to work, I suppose.'

Aylesbury's problem is not sudden. A leaflet, 'What's Happening to Aylesbury', issued by the Aylesbury Society in 1977, when the town's population was 41,000, referred to bored children, vandalism and crime, and a 'grossly over- stretched police', a lack of entertainment and cultural facilities, ugly buildings and absence of 'pleasant places to sit and play'. Douglas Hurd, when Home Secretary, spoke against lager-louts, referring to Aylesbury youth.

Yet on the plain below the Chilterns, 36 miles from London, Aylesbury felt reasonably secure. Then, about 18 months ago, with the population at 55,000, things took a turn for the worse.

Guns appeared. Gangsters staged armed robberies. Burglaries increased. Drugs proliferated. Three murders have occurred this year alone. Ten days ago, four people were shot at Mangrove Jack's, a popular pub. Police from outside town were called in to help the local force on the same night when two masked robbers, armed with a sawn-off shotgun and an iron bar, locked the staff of a Mexican restaurant in a cupboard and made off with the takings. Pubs have been urged to shut early in the evenings, following scuffles in which 14 have been arrested. Last week, a gang kidnapped a company employee, then forced her to help them rob two of its amusement centres.

Nick Curwin, a Bucks Herald reporter, disclosed last week that every secondary school in Aylesbury has a drug-abuse problem, while in some primary schools 10-year-olds are smoking cannabis. Many of the dealers are ex-pupils.

He said: 'When I started the investigation I learned about children on amphetamines stealing cars and daring the police to chase them. Kids of 14 to 18 ran a competition to see who could get the most cautionary slips from the police.'

Such bad news makes Aylesbury people uncomfortable. Readers' letters to the local papers concentrate on parking restrictions and the state of the bus station. Crime is 'so uncharacteristic of the town', hissed an employee in the public library, a concrete bunker adjoining concrete high-rise flats.

The flats loom over the Friar's Square shopping precinct. Before Friar's Square was glazed over, it too was a concrete monstrosity typical of early-Sixties 'brutalist' architecture. Stanley Kubrick used it for some Clockwork Orange locations. Ashamed, Aylesbury buried it under an pounds 80m mixture of glass and brass. 'Old Aylesburians refer to 'the rape' of Aylesbury,' said the Bucks Herald editor, Richard Wells,

How typical of Middle England is Aylesbury?

For one thing, it is a Tory town (its MPs are David Lidington and George Walden) in the only Tory-controlled county in the country. The district council has 27 Tory councillors, 24 Liberal Democrat, six Independent and only one Labour. More than 8 per cent of the workforce are professional (compared with a British average of 7 per cent); 40.5 per cent are managerial and technical (32.5); 16 per cent skilled or semi-skilled (19); and 3.2 per cent unskilled (5). It has 2 per cent more young people under 16 than the national average and nearly 6 per cent fewer pensioners.

Aylesbury's 'non-white ethnic' group - largely of Asian origin - is slightly higher than the national average, and its 70 per cent 'economically active' is 7 points below the British figure. But it has a higher-than- average home ownership, car ownership and lone-parent households. Only 5 per cent of home are without central heating, compared with 18 per cent nationally.

The Aylesbury duck made the town famous, until it was wiped out in the 19th century by an outbreak of 'duck fever' and by Peking duck, a new arrival from China. Other claims to attention centred on the 1963 trial of the Great Train Robbers in Aylesbury Crown Court and, later, the trial of Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, on drugs charges.

The town is sensitive about its reputation. Mention the name Maxwell, and people quickly talk down Robert the Bad, the late publishing mogul whose print workers once had a club on the outskirts of town, and talk up Reg the Good, a former town clerk whose name graces the local swimming pool. But nobody quite knows the answer to violence and drugs. Five years ago, local churches united in a 'march for Jesus' through the town. No miracles followed. An alcohol-free pub for young teenagers also failed to do the trick. 'I went in there once and felt very intimidated,' Mr Wells said.

Mr Wells supports the view that Aylesbury has much going for it. 'It's not as though we have an underworld here,' he said.

His reporter is less sanguine. 'There's a lot of frustration,' Mr Curwin said. 'Six armed robberies in six weeks] These people are becoming more and more aggressive.'

(Photograph omitted)