Oswestry, town that's seen it all before, fights back 'irrelevance' as a market town

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The Independent Online

In Oswestry, a town dubiously distinguished as the only place in Britain to have endured a foot-and-mouth epidemic twice in the past 35 years, the heritage signposts are rather stretching a point at present.

In Oswestry, a town dubiously distinguished as the only place in Britain to have endured a foot-and-mouth epidemic twice in the past 35 years, the heritage signposts are rather stretching a point at present.

"Oswestry: Border market town" they state, in the hope of pulling in trade from a fast bypass that has made the attractions of nearby Chester and Shrewsbury too close for comfort in the past 10 years.

But the town's livestock market, possibly its great commercial asset, has been closed for six weeks now and the only signs of economic life are flyers for tomorrow's car boot sale.

Though the local street market has limped on, Wednesdays ­ market day ­ are a shadow of what they once were. Oswestry, in the words of a local newspaper banner headline, has become a "ghost town" and foot-and-mouth's far- reaching effects on British farming suggest it may never recover.

The town's discomfort is shared by scores of "irrelevant" market towns across Britain, 43 of which received £1m each from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, this week, to put them back on the map.

They have been "left on the shelf" as regeneration focuses on rural villages and inner cities, according to David Gluck of the Countryside Agency, the Government's adviser on rural issues. He said: "Many have become almost irrelevant because of changes in local industry, whether that is textiles, coal, fisheries or agriculture. In a farming town, the local agricultural market may close, then the abattoir closes and suddenly the town is irrelevant."

Oswestry has also suffered from the growth of out-of-town shopping centres, the decline of rural transport in outlying village and the bypass.

But it has not given up the fight. It has limited the chain stores it allows into the town to preserve its independent shops, a policy that threatened to land the borough council in the High Court with Tesco two years ago, after the supermarket was refused permission to develop a store. After a three-year battle, Tesco backed down.

Jenni Griffiths, a fashion retailer, provides evidence that Oswestry's independent retail ambitions have potential to redefine the town. She was forced to move her Out of Town boutique from a converted farmhouse into rented premises in Oswestry six weeks ago, because foot-and-mouth was keeping customers away. But there has been enough passing trade to increase her revenue by a third and she is now considering staying. She'll sell no lines that are available in retail chains. "It's the only way to compete," she said.

Oswestry Borough Council is also wringing tourism business out of the town's every pore. The new heritage centre examines little more than the war poet Wilfred Owen (who was born here) but at least it hooks visitors into an adjoining restaurant. Statistics suggest the strategy has worked.

Unemployment is down to 4.4 per cent against 7 per cent four years ago and there has been none of the depopulation which, for instance, has robbed the West Yorkshire market town of Todmorden of half its population in the past 30 years.

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