A GROUP of independent shopkeepers has warned that Witney is becoming a “clone town” with chain stores taking over.

They told Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron of their fears at a face-to-face meeting.

Florist Rosa Ashby said she warned Mr Cameron that many feared they would be forced to close in the next 12 months.

Mrs Ashby has run Rosa’s Floral Designs, in Wesley Walk, for 16 years but fears the increase in national names in the town centre will mean specialist independent traders like her will not last much longer.

She presented a number of emails and letters to Mr Cameron last month and said she hoped he would help them.

Other businesses backing her call for action are The Old Studio in High Street, Artbox in Mill Walk and Creative Cards in High Street.

Mrs Ashby said there were now 30 national names in Witney and she said there were about the same number of independent shops.

She said many small businesses were struggling to cover their business rates bills.

Mrs Ashby pays £6,300 each a year and is unable to afford to take on more staff.

In recent years, a Morrisons, a 99p Store, Costa Coffee and a Caffe Nero have come to the town.

She said: “The rents, rates and VAT which we pay are getting out of control. All these big companies like Marks & Spencer sell a lot of the things which we as independent stores sell and it’s hard to go up against them.

“I hope Mr Cameron will do something to help us.

“We’re no longer a market town, we are becoming a clone town.”

Anne Constable, who has run Artbox for four years, pays about £40,000 a year to rent her shop and £1,000 a month in rates.

She said: “I honestly do believe that a lot of independents are going to be closed in the next year. I will struggle on but I can’t see me being here this time next year.”

Chomsky’s owner Sharon Buck said her coffee and sandwich shop had “no future”. She pays about £875 a month in rent and £85 a month in rates.

She said: “I will try to keep going as long as I can but it’s going to be hard.”

Mr Cameron said yesterday: “We need to do more to help our local businesses, and the Government I lead is committed to addressing the problems faced by small businesses and high streets.”

But Richard Langridge, who is West Oxfordshire District Council’s cabinet member for the local economy, said the larger stores brought shoppers into the town.

He said: “Independent traders are incredibly important and we value them highly. I hope their fears are completely groundless and I will do everything I can to ensure they stay in the town.

“But I do think these big shops are raising the profile of our town and it’s still very much a market town.”

The chairman of Witney Chamber of Commerce, Lesley Semaine, said: “There should always be a balance in a town with independent and big brands.

“Maybe people could be helped out with rates if that would help them get through.”