Local Trader Offers ‘Reality Check’ Over Empty Bell Street Supermarket Site

The recent debate over North Dorset Council’s sale of the Cattle Market to a supermarket has rekindled discussion about the unoccupied, former Co-op Store.

The majority of the people who responded to Shaftesbury Town Council’s Cattle Market engagement exercise, whether in person or online, felt that the town needs another supermarket. But many respondents wrote comments on the post-it notes insisting that any new retailer should open their store at the Bell Street site.

At the recent Town Meeting, David Perry shared his view that the low cost supermarket, rumoured to be Lidl, would not consider the Bell Street property. “That’s a given,” said David, who argued that Lidl have specific size and space requirements for their stores. “They are not going to knock it down and build a Lidl. They will build on a brownfield site. The town centre site is not suitable for Lidl, he said.

“If we say we don’t want it on the cattle market where else will it be? The only other place would be an out-of-town development and that would be absolutely disastrous,” David said. “If a Lidl is going to come to Shaftesbury then the Cattle Market is where they should be,” he said.

David was speaking in a personal capacity and not in his Chamber of Commerce position. Nevertheless his message, which he described as ‘a reality check’, was met with some heckling from locals who didn’t want a new store built on the Cattle Market.

David Perry

Some residents’ engagement exercise responses suggested that Marks and Spencer should be encouraged to take on the Bell Street store. David offered his thoughts on why M&S would not be interested. He listed the major UK supermarkets and commented on whether they were expanding.

“It’s not within anybody’s power to say ‘let’s put Marks and Spencer in there’” he said. “Marks and Spencer has a new chairman. His will spend the next 12 months ‘opening the cupboards’ and ‘finding the skeletons’. Marks and Spencer has also announced that they will close up to 100 stores before 2020,” David added.

Mr Perry went on to say that no major UK food store was increasing their number of stores, “And they won’t, until Brexit is finished, the economy rises, hell freezes over or whichever happens first,” he said. “The old Co-op site is a commercial building. The only way anything will happen to that is if a developer buys and redevelops it,” David added. He says he wished that a small convenience store could seize the potential offered by the Bell Street site. He said that one was ‘dearly needed’.

Chairman of the Royal British Legion in Shaftesbury, Robin Miller, echoed the need for a shop. He told the meeting that his members faced difficulties with shopping. “On the western end of Shaftesbury, in St James and Bimport, there are many elderly people who are relatively immobile and can’t do the long distance from one end of town to another,” Robin said. “They sorely need somewhere where they can buy daily provisions and a certain amount of hardware.”

If the size and location of the empty Bell Street stores doesn’t suit the current strategy of the national retailers then who else could go there? Robin told the town meeting that he’d like local businesses to consider taking on the site. “I was thinking of Dike and Sons of Stalbridge or a shop like Harts of Sturminster Newton. Both are extremely successful. Shaftesbury would dearly love to have something of that quality,” he said.

Robin appealed for property owners to make concessions to encourage full occupancy. “If the landlord is reading the press every day then he understands that even national chains are not accepting the sort of rents that are charged these days. Businesses are going out of business left right and centre because the costs are too much, the footfall is too little and it is not worth the while of an entrepreneur to get out there and establish his business,” Robin cautioned.

Since the town meeting, there have been more reports of problems for national retailers. Debenhams’ profits are down. But there’s good news – four new independent stores will be trading in town by the end of summer. Perhaps it is time for landlords of units that have been empty for some time to consider how they can alter their conditions to favour local entrepreneurs. Perhaps then, everybody wins?