Shaftesbury Town Council will spend up to £10,000 on legal advice to establish whether there are grounds to challenge North Dorset District Council’s sale of the Cattle Market. Councillors could vote to commit more money, depending on the initial consultation.
Last night, residents voiced strong opposition to the sale of the Christy’s Lane site to an unidentified low-cost supermarket chain. A town meeting, lasting over 2 hours, followed a daytime drop-in event arranged by the Town Council and the Shaftesbury Civic Society.
Town Councillor Tim Cook said that the sessions were called so residents could suggest how they would like the land used. “One of the reasons that we are running this exercise is to try and gauge the public’s reaction, not only to a supermarket on that site but anything else that they may consider,” Tim said.
During the day, stickers were given to people so they could record their responses to questions presented on signboards. One board asked whether there was a need for an additional supermarket. Most people felt that another store was needed, but many respondents wanted the empty Bell Street Co-Op site used rather than the Cattle Market.
The large clusters of blue dots stuck on the question board asking about the building style of a new supermarket revealed that locals would prefer an historic or traditional design, if one is built. A contemporary building appeared less popular.
Attendees also ‘voted’ to protect the cattle market car parking, using their stickers. Most people wanted free parking to remain, but there were mixed views on whether that provision should be for long or short stay parking.
Shaftesbury Civic Society helped arrange Monday’s events. Chairman Mike Madgwick said that he was ‘highly satisfied.’ “I was very pleased at the turnout and how the meeting was handled. There is clearly a lot of enthusiasm and passion from people and there were some very constructive ideas for the site’s potential use,” he said.
Many residents spoke against the District Council’s sale decision during the public meeting. Some accused the North Dorset authority of ‘asset stripping’ as it will soon be replaced by a new, unitary council.
The secrecy behind the sale process was also called into question. Shaftesbury Town Council was informed of NDDC’s intention to sell the site a few days before the District Council debated and approved the Cattle Market site sale. “This exercise should have been done before this land got to the point where it was being sold,” said Tim.
Deputy Town mayor, Councillor Lester Taylor, was also unhappy that the sale remained under wraps. When NDDC informed Shaftesbury councillors of their intentions, the Town Council couldn’t discuss the plan because it was deemed commercially sensitive and confidential. “It’s an emotive thing. I just wish we were able to engage earlier with the public,” said Lester.
Martin Hamilton, North Dorset District Council’s Strategic Director, answered many questions from the floor questioning the secrecy surrounding the sale. He said that his authority marketed the land using specialist agents, rather than websites that the general public can see.
“North Dorset District Council has followed its standard process with regards to marketing the site. It’s unusual in that the Council own the freehold but the Cattle Market operator has got a long lease on it,” he explained. “At the time, when we were talking to Shaftesbury Town Council about the proposed sale, we were working at the same time with the Cattle Market operator to sensitively release the information to their customers,” he said.
Nobody attending the meeting had seen the site’s marketing material. Mr Hamilton agreed to resident Julian Pritchard’s request for North Dorset District Council to send that document to Shaftesbury Town Council.
During the debate, which was heated at times, NDDC was accused of being deceitful. Mr Hamilton said that wasn’t correct. “Quite often in community meetings there is a lot of passion and sometimes, with that, comes words like deceit. I absolutely refute any suggestion that there was anything underhand as part of this process,” he said.
If the sale to a supermarket goes ahead, any new building would still require planning approval. Some residents questioned whether a supermarket would potentially spend millions of pounds on purchasing a site without any guarantees that they would gain planning consent.
At that point, Chamber of Commerce Chairman David Perry took the microphone to advise that supermarkets do sometimes buy land speculatively.
Bernard Ede of the Open Spaces Group said he was uncomfortable with having different parts of North Dorset District Council handling both the land sale and any future application to build on it. “It seems perverse to me that the landowner, the organisation, is also the planning authority,” said Bernard.
He repeated fellow Open Spaces member Sue Clifford’s comments, who stated that planning should be the first step. “The site and its land-use, access and relationship with the town centre and the peripheral residential area should come first and then the site should be marketed with a given land-use,” Bernard explained.
Mr Hamilton assured the meeting that North Dorset District Council cannot sell land with the promise of future planning consent. “There is no guarantee of planning that comes with that. We have a clear separation in the Council between those of us who deal with assets and their disposal and those who deal with planning,” he stated.
There was a strong sentiment expressed that Shaftesbury should benefit directly from any money released from the sale of the land, as the site had once been owned by the town.
Resident Dorothy Abbott received the loudest applause of the evening when she said that North Dorset District Council was meant to represent Shaftesbury, but she didn’t feel that had been the case.
So, with such evident and vocal opposition to the sale process, why couldn’t North Dorset District Council accept they had misjudged the situation and reverse the plan to sell the Cattle Market?
“I’ve got an existing decision by the North Dorset District Council cabinet, which was properly taken,” Mr Hamilton said. “To take that back to the drawing board would be complex.”
He explained that’s because both the Council and the Cattle Market are involved with the site. The Council couldn’t just take that decision. “We would have to unravel the whole process with the site occupier and it wouldn’t be straightforward,” he added.
The Shaftesbury Civic Society wants to have the Cattle Market designated as a community asset. They have put in a request, or ‘nomination’, for this designation. This process is often used to protect vital rural services, like village shops or pubs, by allowing the community to buy them when their buildings go on sale.
“There is an opportunity. If the town cares enough and is ambitious enough, then we can find an innovative and sustainable solution,” Civic Society Trustee Jackie Upton King explained. “Our voice can be heard, we can have answers,” Jackie added.
Reponses posted on the question boards in the drop-in session showed widespread support for a campaign to raise the cash needed to purchase the land if it was awarded this special status. But some locals voiced unease over potentially raising millions of pounds to buy land that they felt the community rightfully owned anyway.
Martin Hamilton confirmed that no legal option had been agreed with the supermarket chain and North Dorset District Council is now considering the Civic Society’s application. Mr Hamilton stated that the council staff working on the site’s sale would not influence the outcome.
If the Civic Society is successful, the sale process will be put on hold, although even then, North Dorset wouldn’t have to sell the site to a community-backed bidder. “The process involves colleagues evaluating whether the site does have community value. If it is registered as such then there will be a six-month moratorium when the Council would not sell the site. They would give the community the chance to decide whether they wanted to bid for it,” Mr Hamilton explained.
North Dorset Council would not be obligated to sell it to a community group, Martin cautioned. “It is a right to bid, not a right to buy,” he added. They could potentially sell the Cattle Market site to a buyer who offered less than the current interested party.
“The Council is under a duty for best consideration for the site. That doesn’t necessarily mean the best price in hard cash terms. We can take into account other community benefits. So it is possible to take a lower capital sum. I have no idea whether that would be a decision that we would take,” Mr Hamilton explained.
Some members of the public have suggested figures of around £2m for the site. Mr Hamilton repeatedly stated that he could not reveal the sale price at this stage.
So how would a community group find out how much money they needed to bid for the site? Resident Steve Unwin cautioned that community ownership could be ‘pie in the sky’, without knowing the cost.
Mr Hamilton says that if the site is deemed to be a community asset, “then we need to sit down within the Council and work out what we can share with the community so it can start that process.”
Towards the end of the meeting former Town Mayor, Lester Dibben, proposed a parish poll. It would allow residents to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to one question relating to the Cattle Market site sale.
There are strict rules governing the process for a community referendum. Town Clerk Claire Commons advised that the cost would be around £8,000. But, the precise wording of the ballot question would have to be agreed before the meeting ended.
It soon became clear that it wasn’t possible to construct a key question, which would meet widespread approval, at such short notice during the meeting.
Deputy Mayor, Lester Taylor, who chaired the session, agreed to calls for another public meeting on the issue soon. The Town Council will also ask their appointed legal expert to attend.
Shaftesbury Town Council had previously requested, in the strongest terms, that the North Dorset District councillors representing the town should attend the public meeting to discuss the Cattle Market sale.
Councillor Derek Beer did attend and he spoke at the session. Cllr Jo Francis had a prior appointment and could not go. Cllr Gary Jefferson was abroad and as Cllr Simon Prichard works for Tesco, Lester Taylor stated that Cllr Prichard’s attendance would be considered inappropriate because of the potential for conflict in discussing supermarkets.
Shaftesbury’s Mayor, Piers Brown, is also a district councillor. He was on holiday and did not attend.
If you wish to answer the survey questions presented in the public drop in session, you canrespond on Shaftesbury Town Council’s website, www.shaftesbury-tc.gov.uk, until midday on Monday 18th June.
The meeting also debated the use of the former Co-Op store on Bell Street. A full report on these discussions will be posted soon.