Paul Vallely: Bournville laments saddest day for 10 years

Eyewitness: It's a special place. Cadbury gave the community a focus and a personality
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The Independent Online

Nigel Dawkins is walking along the path known as the Birdwalk, which cuts from the back of Bournville village. It was commissioned by the Quaker industrialist George Cadbury in the last years of the 19th century when he built his eponymous chocolate factory in the Birmingham suburbs and the nearby model village for its workers.

Cadbury, a classic Victorian philanthropist, decided he wanted local people to be able to cut through the grounds so they would feel a connection with the enterprise.

"From the path you could see all the inner parts, the piping, the rough bits at the back," says Dawkins, 54, who was born and raised in Bournville. "My mother worked at the factory. As a child it represented to me something big, British and powerful. It was, like British Leyland, one of the large industrial complexes that offered young people like me a secure future – and a choice."

The air is heavy with the sweet, slightly heady odour of chocolate. "As kids we would say that if you could smell the chocolate it's going to rain," he said wistfully. He is more than wistful today. Nigel Dawkins has been one of Bournville's three Tory councillors for the past 10 years. "This", he says, "is the saddest day of that decade."

The news that the world's second-largest food company, Kraft, is to buy Cadbury has chilled the air in Bournville, which was not long ago named in an academic survey as one of the nicest places to live in Britain. It is not just the wide, leafy streets of the red-bricked village semis. It is something to do with the sense of community the place has developed.

"It's a special place," says Paul Clarke, who was for 20 years a manager at the chocolate factory. "Cadbury gave the place a focus, and a personality."

Clarke's grandparents and great-grandparents all worked at the factory. "What Cadbury built here was a whole community. There were 6,000 people at the carol service on the green this year."

Everyone I speak to fears that what makes Bournville special will soon be gone. Donna Dawkins, a science teacher at a local school, points out that the factory hosts the village fete, supports youth and sporting events, and runs the swimming pool, sports field and women's park. "It brings adults and children together, right through the age groups. Kraft will have no loyalty to that," she says.

The loss they fear is partly material. In the Old Farm Hotel an executive from Cadbury head office in Uxbridge assumes his job will be among the first to go. But local traders assume that jobs will go at the factory too.

In the curtain shop 400 yards from the factory gates the owner, John Martin, says: "Kraft will have to find ways to pay back the $7bn they have borrowed to buy Cadbury. Job losses seem inevitable."

Down on the village green – which boasts a baker, butcher, greengrocer, florist, chemist, hairdresser and bank – they are just as gloomy. "Kraft have a poor track record, with the other companies they have swallowed up and then closed down five minutes later," says Louise Griffiths, who has run the florist for 13 years and lived in Bournville for 35.

But the level of anger locally suggests that something more profound even than livelihood is being threatened by the US takeover.

On local radio phone-ins listeners rail against the indignity of a strong, highly successful, innovative, independent and profitable British company – which is the world's largest confectionery group with revenues of more than £6bn – being taken over by a US conglomerate which makes plasticky cheese and is hugely in debt. They denounce the British bank, RBS, which has financed Kraft's takeover bid. And they attack the Government for failing to block the foreign takeover in the way that the French, Japanese or Chinese governments would have done.

The afternoon DJ on BBC WM, Danny Kelly, even bans US artists from his playlist and declares his afternoon show to be a Yank-free zone.

"There was a character dressed up as John Bull protesting outside the factory," says Paul Clarke. "But I don't think it's jingoism so much as a protest against a sense of impotence. The globalised economy has taken from us control of our own destiny."

Perhaps that is why the Cadbury story resonates so much with the rest of us. It is more than seeing another piece of the family silver go west. Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food and they are snatching away our iconic childhood brand.

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