Shaftesbury Town Council has agreed to make a bid to buy the former Budgens supermarket on Bell Street.
The Council can’t say how much they’ll offer at this stage because there could be other bidders but the Town Clerk says she’s satisfied that the process has been scrutinised, the financial figures stack up and the project is ‘not scary’.
In October, ThisIsAlfred.com revealed that a committee of residents was assessing the potential of the empty Budgens, which occupies a 0.3-acre town centre site. This group is now constituted as Shaftesbury Town Council’s Economic Development Advisory Committee. ‘EDAC’ is chaired by Jackie Upton King, who chaired Sturminster Newton’s Sturquest Community Partnership. This group transformed that town’s redundant cattle market into the Exchange arts venue, retail spaces and accommodation.
EDAC includes representation from the Civic Society, Swans Trust, the Chamber of Commerce and the Neighbourhood Plan, and will advise the Council on how to ensure that Shaftesbury’s economy remains vibrant.
The volunteers have used the working title of ‘Project Belle’ while assessing the opportunities for the former supermarket site. EDAC members recommended that the Town Council should put in an offer for the building, which is currently in the hands of the receivers. Since then, councillors have been debating whether to bid for the old Budgens, deliberating in both public and private sessions. They discussed financial projections for over one hour last night before reaching their decision to approve a bid.
Speaking after the private meeting, Town Clerk, Claire Commons, told ThisIsAlfred.com that the proposal to bid for the site was backed unanimously by councillors although she couldn’t say how much the Town Council is going to offer. “I’m sorry. At the moment we can’t reveal that. We have to make sure that our hand is protected while the bid goes forward. As soon as the bid is accepted, if it is accepted, then we will be able to reveal that. We don’t know how many other people might be bidding for it so to make the best opportunity for Shaftesbury Town Council, we’re keeping that confidential.”
On Tuesday evening, the Town Council held a public meeting to share proposals for their 2019-2020 budget and solicit community feedback. The presentation indicated that the Town Council is setting aside £100,000 for Project Belle, but Claire said that is not the bid amount.
“That is a nominal figure that the Council has put in to show its support for the project. At the point when it was presented to the public on Tuesday it was just that, a nominal figure.” Clare says if the Council’s bid is accepted then the financial details will no longer be considered confidential. “All of the information that supported this decision-making will be made available to the public so it can be looked at in the detail that councillors have.”
Clare also can’t currently reveal how the Council will fund their bid if successful. “We are looking at a variety of different options and partnership working. I can’t go into further detail at this point.”
Next year, North Dorset District Council, the other Dorset district councils and Dorset County Council will all be abolished and replaced by a new super authority, covering all of rural Dorset. It’s likely that our council tax bills will increase when this happens. North Dorset’s council tax is lower than neighbouring areas of Dorset, so we’ll have to pay more as the rates are ‘harmonised’ across the new authority’s area.
Clare says that the proportion of the council tax that Shaftesbury residents will pay to Shaftesbury Town Council, known as the ‘the precept’, will not increase if the Town Council buys the supermarket site. “As of yesterday, we are still looking at a zero-percent increase on the council tax. We have managed the budget to achieve what we need to achieve in that, so no change.”
As Town Clerk, Mrs Commons is effectively Chief Executive of Shaftesbury Town Council. That means she is responsible for ensuring that the Town Council follows local government rules and procedures. Claire says she is confident that councillors have assessed and debated the financial risks before reaching their decision to bid for the old Budgens.
“I am absolutely satisfied that we have gone through, in very great detail, the whole of the project plan for this and we have scrutinised it to a very great detail. There is no massive risk or exposure to the council. We have looked at the projected cash flow for the first couple of years, which is the most vulnerable point of the project, and we have played around with scenarios where, if a certain situation didn’t transpire, then there is another option and what would that look like without that injection of cash. The figures still work. We’re not looking at anything scary for the Council. Were not looking at a deficit or any terms of risk in that manner.”
Although the EDAC committee researched the project and recommended that the Council should bid, why was the Town Council interested in purchasing the supermarket site’s freehold?
“When the opportunity arose and this item came onto the market, the Council was also going through a lot of engagement concerning the spaces in the town,” said Claire. “It became very clear, quickly, that the lack of the Bell Street supermarket was a key concern to the people of the town. One of the things that councillors have said ‘right from the word go’, last September, was that they want to work in cooperation with and in collaboration with the community of Shaftesbury. They are listening to what they are saying and trying to respond to what the needs are. This has been an ideal opportunity for them to do that.”
If the Council’s bid succeeds, Claire says that they won’t necessarily be responsible for driving the project forward. “The Council is going to take ownership of it at this point. It will be responsible for, hopefully, the successful purchase of the site. Beyond that, we’re looking at community and partnership working.”
The Council will place its bid this week and Mrs Commons hopes to hear whether its been accepted within the next few weeks. “It’s really unsure, because of Christmas coming up. We could be lucky enough to hear about it next week or it might take a couple of weeks. I’m expecting that it will be before Christmas.”
The volunteers advising the Council have discussed multiple uses for the space, which covers almost 16,000 ft². Ideas have included workplaces for start-up businesses, retail units and small, affordable-rent flats. Many locals have also posted their ideas for the site on social media. Suggestions have included a bowling alley, a Mark and Spencer food store, a branch of Primark, a gym and a community hall and youth centre.
Claire says no decision has been made on what might be included as part of the project. If the Council bid is accepted, residents will be widely consulted. “We’ll start a really big engagement piece to pin down how the shape of this building will transpire.”
And Claire says that suggestions that the Council has decided what the building will be used for are not true. “It’s not a done deal,” she said. “One of the hardest things for the councillors, in coming to a decision was because there are so many different options for how this would look. We didn’t want it to be a predetermined item because there are so many variables to be investigated.”
EDAC Chairman, Jackie Upton King, is delighted that the Council has backed making a bid. “This project offers the potential for a new way of working in a partnership between the Council and the community, with the Council enabling the community to achieve, with them, a scheme that can bring lasting and sustainable benefit to Shaftesbury,” she said.