It will be end of an era in Shrewsbury when the regular Army moves out of its base at Copthorne Barracks – bringing a close to its 140-year presence in the county town.
Around 80 military and civilian staff serving with The Headquarters 143 (West Midlands) Brigade at the Copthorne Road base will transfer to Donnington in Telford by 2015 – signalling the end of Shrewsbury’s regular Army presence – which dates back to Victorian times.
The move means parts of the historic Copthorne Barracks, which was built in 1877, will be sold off.
The announcement has been greeted with sadness by Shrewsbury politicians and councillors alike.
It is the latest blow to hit the town following the announcement the sorting office is due to close along with the Dana Prison.
The regular Army’s history at the Shrewsbury barracks dates back to 1877 when it was built as the 21st brigade depot.
Between 1881 and 1962 it was the base of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry.
The current Headquarters 143 (West Midlands) Brigade settled in the barracks in 1987.
Plans for a new barracks in Shrewsbury were first put forward by the War Department in 1872.
Lt Colonel Akus from the War Department approached the town council with plans for a new barracks in Kingsland.
However, before the scheme took shape, Shrewsbury School bought the land in Kingsland and relocated from its previous town centre location.
A barracks had to be built within two miles of the town centre so next best site was the land between Copthorne Road and The Mount – all of which was privately owned pasture land.
Construction work on the barracks took place in 1877.
Local firm Treasure & Sons were awarded an unprecedented £50,000 contract to build the base on an area which covered around nine acres.
Around four million bricks were used in the building of the barracks, which included a hospital and married quarters, stabling, stores and the whole area was bounded by walls 15 feet high.
Until 1985, the barracks was the home of Shropshire Regimental Museum – before it was transferred to Shrewsbury Castle.
In 1992, the castle was bombed by the IRA and much of the museum’s collection was either badly damaged or destroyed.
The Queen Mother visited Copthorne Barracks in 1968, 1974 and 1986 in her role as Colonel in Chief of the Light Infantry, and a gate at the barracks is named in her honour.
Last year, the headquarters of the Army’s 5th Division moved out of Copthorne, resulting in the loss of 130 jobs.
It was one of three regional headquarters to move to Aldershot, as part of a Ministry of Defence review.
Yesterday, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced that seven bases across the country were to be disposed, or partially disposed, to accommodate a speeded-up return of all troops from Germany. The move means Headquarters 143 (West Midlands) Brigade, currently based at the Copthorne Road barracks will merge with 11th Signal Brigade at Donnington, Telford, in 2015.
The future for the Territorial Army unit and other smaller units based at Copthorne Barracks has not yet been decided but Army chiefs admitted they could also move away from Shrewsbury – bringing about a full closure of the barracks.
Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski said the news was ‘disappointing’ for Shrewsbury. He said: “Clearly there is a major reorganisation taking place because of the huge cuts the MoD is facing and not all the bases could be kept open.
“But Shrewsbury as the county town has a proud tradition of hosting the Army, and this is disappointing news.” Mr Kawczynski revealed he is to hold talks with the defence secretary to discuss the future of the town’s barracks.
The MP said he had been in contact with Brigadier Gerhard Wheeler CBE, commander of 143 (West Midlands) Brigade, to discuss the impact the move away from Shrewsbury could have on staff. He said his priority was to ensure the livelihoods of around 80 members of military and civilian staff affected by the change.
He said: “I have spoken with Brigadier Wheeler and we have agreed the priority is the livelihoods of the people involved in the transfer and to find out what assistance and support will be given to all these people.
“Going forward we want to see how many TA reservists will continue to be based at the site when parts of it are sold off.”
Mr Kawczynski said he wanted to find an alternative use for the barracks that would benefit the town. He said: “I want to make sure this asset is utilised in the most effective way to bring prosperity to Shrewsbury.
“It is an extremely important site in the heart of Shrewsbury and I would like to see it used as a multi-purpose facility.”
The MP said it was important that the recreational land at the barracks, including a football and cricket pitch, were made available for the local community.
“I would like the recreational sites to be upgraded and modernised effectively for the local community. Copthorne is rather bereft of community facilities.”
Mr Kawczynski also said the site should allow space for business. “The one thing that Shrewsbury needs going forward is space for some of its extraordinary young entrepreneurs,” he said.
Meanwhile Shropshire Councillor for Copthorne, Peter Nutting said he was interested in the employment opportunities the site could offer.
He said: “Life moves on and we need to make the most of the situation. I would like to see office-type space created at the site.”
Brigadier Gerhard Wheeler, Commander of 143 Brigade in the West Midlands said the Army would endeavour to maintain a strong link with Shrewsbury.
He said: “The Defence Infrastructure Organization will work closely with the local authorities to ensure that the future of Copthorne Barracks meets the needs of the local community.
“The provision for reservists in Shrewsbury is important to us and will be considered as part of the Army’s reserve basing study. Whatever the final decision, the Army will endeavour to continue to maintain its strong bonds with Shrewsbury.”
Conservative MP for the Wrekin, Mark Pritchard has welcomed the shake-up.
He said: “I am delighted that more rather than less defence personnel and defence services are coming to Donnington. This is good news for Telford and The Wrekin constituency.”
The loss of the regular army in Shrewsbury is another hammer blow to the town, which is already reeling from the loss of Shrewsbury Prison and the Royal Mail sorting office – costing the town around 450 jobs In December, Royal Mail confirmed that it would close Shrewsbury’s sorting office –the only one in Shropshire – which employs 240 staff.
The company said the operation would transfer to offices in Chester, Cardiff and Wolverhampton. However, it vowed to protect 180 delivery jobs, also based at Shrewsbury’s Castle Foregate office. The Shrewsbury centre has been in use, initially as a delivery depot and later as a sorting office, since 1880.
Royal Mail blamed its closure on a nationwide fall in mail in the face of rising e-mail use and the “growth of competition”.
In January, the town was dealt another blow when the Government said the Dana Prison would close, along with five others.
The last of the Dana’s 300 prisoners were transferred at the end of last month.
Governor Gerry Hendry said: “It is very sad and it is the end of 220 years of a prison on this site and 500 years of a prison in Shrewsbury.”
Now the Government has announced a partial disposal of parts of Copthorne Barracks.
The triple whammy will have a long-term impact on the town, with fewer jobs meaning fewer workers are able to spend wages in local shops.