44 Closure of Banbury’s livestock market signalled end of an era for town

IN THE Banbury Guardian issue for March 22, 1990 the editorial was compiled by reporter Philippa Spackman. She had become involved in the developing story of the progressive decline of Banbury Stockyard and the prospects for the emergence of a new market close to or well beyond the town’s built up area. Her words were carefully chosen namely, ‘while the final frontier for Banbury’s eastern expansion will be the new motorway, the Grimsbury interchange will be the focus of fierce development pressure’. At the time I doubt if she appreciated the degree to which change was going to be a cause of differences of opinion between cross-border councils.

Eight years on from this editorial the Merton Street livestock market closed with the final day characterised by a high level of farmers’ emotions. For people who lived close to the site this marked the end of what they viewed as the longest running Wild West show. Reactions to this turn of events were quick to be revealed in the Banbury Guardian. A letter penned by Councillor Lewis Garfield of South Northants Council was captioned ‘we will fight cattle market scheme all the way’. The proposed location was Huscote Farm, which was split either side of the Oxfordshire/Northamptonshire boundary. The councillor remarked scornfully that ‘the decision five years ago (1993) to grant permission on the Huscote site was perverse’. He went on to challenge whether a market was any longer needed and to hint at the prospect of substantial growth. In one sense this was right as the best chance of success was at locations where highland farmers sold livestock to lowland farmers.

The search for a new location was not limited to Huscote. On March 19, 1998 John Anderson of Steeple Aston wrote a letter to the Banbury Guardian in which he flagged up the advantages of the former Heyford Air Force Base as an appropriate place because it was a brown field site. In his view it was preferable to fields sandwiched between Banbury and Middleton Cheney.

In a talk delivered to Banbury Rotary Club, former Midland Marts auctioneer and surveyor Bob Thompson had drawn attention to the desire of Midland Marts directors to acquire land close to junction 11 of the M40 because in the longer term they envisaged the emergence of a business park. Their forward thinking encompassed the notion that farmers would fund the market itself. To this end shares were offered but the initiative was unsuccessful. The consequences were disastrous for the drovers who went out of business in many cases.

In a very perceptive article published in Town and Country Planning magazine, Professor Brian Goodey of Oxford Brooks University identified a significant response to the Huscote proposals, which was that Mr Prescott as Secretary of State called in the planning application following persistent pressure from across the Northamptonshire border. This was effectively the end of the line for the new market.

It remained for a massive turnout of rural interests on June 4, 1998 to show their reactions to the Grimsbury closure.

Those who were farmers had always held dear what Professor Goodey called ‘this muddily non-place’. Worse than that it symbolised ‘an increasingly unknown world beyond where farmers responsible juggle declining prices with a perverse belief in stewardship of the environment’.

Looking back to the 1990s it is perhaps unfortunate that the market issue could not be given exclusive attention. This was the time when much was at stake for the future of the town. Banbury was haunted by the Coca Cola affair and coincidently attention needed to be focused on the town centre where Raglan had become the dominant player in the shopping centre game.

Brian Goodey was only too right when he observed ‘the closure of Banbury market is not a warning, it is an end’. The fiasco that was Huscote symbolised that end.