Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce has a new Chairman. Virginia Edwyn-Jones hopes to create more events in our town’s calendar, and she wants engagement with landlords to ensure that our High Street remains vibrant, with many independent stores.
Keri Jones from Alfred spoke with Virginia and listened to her vision for the Chamber.
Virginia Edwyn-Jones has an understanding of the issues and opportunities facing Shaftesbury. She is a member of the Neighbourhood Plan group, shaping the blueprint for Shaftesbury’s future development. Virginia also stood in the recent Town Council elections. She polled the same number of votes as Cllr Matthew Welch, which forced the Returning Officer to hold a tie-breaker.
Virginia was unlucky but outgoing Chamber of Commerce Chairman David Perry arguably got the result he wanted. “I did say to David that if I didn’t get in as a town councillor, then I would probably step up as Chair. It did free me up to do that,” said Virginia.
David will serve as Vice-Chairman as Virginia brings new ideas to the role. “I think it’s all about being innovative and looking at how best can we support the town, given the problems that everyone is facing. A lot of people walking along the High Street, seeing empty shops, go into a blind panic. That’s understandable,” said Virginia, but adds that there is a ‘back-story’ behind some of the town’s currently vacant units.
“People give up leases for all kinds of reasons – because they fancy doing something else, they’re retiring, because it’s the end of the lease and it seems like a good opportunity to move on. It doesn’t mean that the business is failing.” Virginia says Shaftesbury is still faring comparatively well. “We have a lot fewer empty shops than many of the towns in Dorset. But we don’t want any empty shops at all.”
The Chamber is discussing the potential for new, additional festivals that could encourage more people into town. “The Food Festival is absolutely wonderful, and what an extraordinary success story the Fringe has been, from a standing start. This is only the fourth year! I’m just so proud of them all,” Virginia said, adding, “There are other festivals we want to do. There are a few months where nothing’s happening.”
Virginia spearheaded the campaign to encourage the use of empty shops, such as the former ‘Fork and Flowers’ store, as temporary retail or gallery spaces. Chamber members have also been investigating ready-made legal agreements that could give landlords peace-of-mind when renting their space for ‘pop-ups’. “We need to make it easier and more attractive for landlords to allow pop-ups in their shops,” she said.
Property owners, especially those based away from Shaftesbury, will be included in discussions, particularly concerning the appearance of their premises. “Most tenancies are full-repairing leases. That is historically the way commercial properties have been handled. The trade-off is that, if it’s not a full-repairing lease and the landlord has to take responsibility for the condition of the building, then he has to put the rent up,” said Virginia.
She says that Shaftesbury suffers from some ‘serial offender’ national chains. “I’m happy to name and shame Edinburgh Woollen Mill because that is an awful eyesore in the High Street. As far as we’re aware, the landlord is trying to get some reparation,” said Virginia.
And she says out-of-area landlords need to understand how important our independent shops are. “That’s something that Shaftesbury is known for. It’s why people come here from within a 20-mile radius. They want to buy gifts and clothes and to have something to eat where they’ve got beautiful views. It’s a shopping excursion. We have to make sure that we continue offering that.”
There are mixed views on how the town centre retail offer should develop. Some people would like Shaftesbury to become another Frome whilst other residents would prefer national retailers like Primark or New Look. Virginia urges caution about courting chains. She says those shops are not distinctive and can be vulnerable to market changes.
“With national chains, the shop that is in your High Street is part of national network. If they have some catastrophic failure then, even if your town’s shop is actually doing quite well, they may shut it down overnight. Independent shops can be flexible, can respond better to their customers. I think that’s the way to go for us,” she said.
Virginia business is interior design. She doesn’t have her own shop, but she understands the commercial realities of the High Street. She owns a High Street property with her husband, Tim. “We are landlords here. We just have the one building.”
Virginia roared with laughter when I asked her whether it was the former Edinburgh Woollen Mill. It’s actually the Ladbrokes betting office. “It is also in an awful condition, but they too have a full repairing lease,” said Virginia, who added that she is constantly asking them to decorate the exterior. “It’s intensely embarrassing. You can’t force your tenants to do it when you want them to do it.”
I asked Virginia how, hypothetically, she would act if Ladbroke’s lease was up for renewal and an independent offered a similar amount of money for the space. “Legally, when a lease comes to an end, the existing tenant has a right to renew. Unless they say that they no longer want to renew, then we’re not in a position really to offer it to anyone else. But it would be fantastic to have an independent shop there.”
Virginia hopes that, in a year, people will notice that the Chamber’s new ideas and energy has made a difference. “I very much hope so. We’re all volunteers. I hope that I can find the time to do as many of the things as I have in mind and that I can take the executive with me. I’m excited about it,” said Virginia.
And she’s positive about the town’s future. “Shaftesbury is well placed to thrive, purely because we have so many independent shops. They look and see what people want and they respond accordingly. We need to give them as much support as we can to do that,” said Virginia.