Shaftesbury Groups Partner For £1m Town Centre Enhancement Bid

A £1m bid for cash to enhance Shaftesbury town centre has been submitted to grants body, Historic England. If the funding is awarded, it will be used to tackle empty shops, enhance the street markets, improve the appearance of the town centre and celebrate Shaftesbury’s heritage.

Alfred spoke with three of the project’s partners.

This significant grant application for ‘High Street Heritage Action Zone’ money was lodged last Friday. It represents a partnership approach between Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce, Shaftesbury Civic Society and Shaftesbury Town Council. If the bid is supported, the Town Council will need to find half of the money.

“We’ve taken the projects that have been identified from the Neighbourhood Plan and then looked at what money we had put aside, ready for a big project like Project Belle,” said Town Clerk Claire Commons, referring to the Council-backed bid to buy the former Bell Street supermarket. The Council was not the highest bidder.

Council Clerk, Claire Commons

The Historic England grant money has to be match funded. They will only release their half of the project costs if the other 50% is sourced by the applicant. “We’re looking at a £1million project and applying for £500,000 from the fund,” said Claire. “If the Council isn’t able to fund the full £500,000, then we would be looking elsewhere for sources to make that match.” She added.

Standing on the Town Hall Balcony, Mrs Commons described how this High Street view may differ in the future, if this funding bid is successful. “I think the scene for this High Street is probably going to be relatively similar, in that it’s a bright, sunny, historic street scene. I think what you would find is a vibrancy and a buzz about the town as people come more and more for the independent shops that we’ve got.”

It might not sound like £1million would make much of a difference, but in the rapidly changing retail world, Shaftesbury’s key organisations recognise that they need to work together – and quickly – to ensure that our High Street remains vibrant.

One of the project aims is to make better use of empty shops. The bid states that they ‘create a bad impression of Shaftesbury’. “We had to calculate how much floor space we anticipated was empty. It’s not that much,” said Claire.

Chamber of Commerce Chairman, Virginia Edwyn-Jones, agrees. “Empty occupancy is much lower than other towns. But one can’t afford to be complacent about that. People are very sensitive to empty shops and feel that they are vulnerable to being snapped up by less attractive nationals or more charities. People are very sensitive to charity shops.”

Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Edwyn Jones

We are a vibrant High Street,” continued Claire. “But we can see the trend of high streets dropping off. We’re trying to get ahead of the game and make sure that we don’t allow it to die before we rejuvenate it.”

Claire says if the grant is awarded, one or more empty town centre properties could be bought for short-term leases, pop-up shops or maybe temporary art galleries. No definite use is decided yet. “It’s a possibility. Or the purchase of a long lease,’ said Claire.

She said the Council would need to decide whether they try to secure more than one empty premises. “A pop-up is a great idea on many levels. It gives landlords the opportunity to show-off their premises and show people different ways that it can be used and occupied,” said Virginia. “It gives an opportunity to budding entrepreneurs and a taste of what it would be like to run a business. If short term leases increase turnover, one can market that in a positive way and give people an added incentive to come to Shaftesbury.”

A project to provide the legal paperwork enabling short-term pop-up shop leases is already being championed by the Chamber of Commerce. “Is there a way of having contracts with landlords that makes it easy for people to step in for a short period of time – to give themselves a boost, while they look for long term tenants? That’s one of the bid ideas,” said Claire. The grant funding could help develop the legal lease paperwork for pop-ups.

Another key retail element featured in this application is a review of the town’s street markets. Funding will be used to see how they could be enhanced and developed. “We’d like a more cohesive branding and marketing strategy for the markets. We’d like other events to support the market traders. We all really enjoy the markets,” said Virginia.

The funding bid, if successful, would aim to make the town centre more attractive for locals and visitors by tackling less-desirable modern additions to shop frontages, such as plastic signage. The application claims this reduces the quality of the area. It would also aim to restore the distinctive Greensand walls of buildings which have been whitewashed.

Trees and open green spaces are generally absent on the shopping streets and some of the money could be used to plant foliage and to ‘screen recent developments that adversely affect views of the town,’ as the bid puts it.

The Bell Street Car Park might be a candidate for a makeover. The bid refers to it as ‘a large area of open asphalt which contradicts the tight spacing of buildings and quality of the rest of the area’. The project team hope that these enhancements will encourage more visitors to town, and that raises the issue of car parking.

A Facebook discussion has suggested that the Town Centre’s car parks were all full on a recent Thursday morning. Some people might argue that indicates a degree of vibrancy, but parking issues have been identified in the parking study commissioned by the Neighbourhood Plan committee last year. One of the experts’ solutions was to introduce electronic signs, revealing where available parking spaces are, and some of the project cash could be spent on that.

Chair of Shaftesbury Civic Society, Jackie Upton King, hopes any project funds can be used to make Shaftesbury’s history more obvious, so newcomers feel part of the town. “It’s about revitalising the heritage aspects of the town centre and making them more relevant to the people who live here, and particularly to people who are new to the town and don’t seem to be that well engaged in the town itself,” said Jackie.

She believes that new residents don’t feel connected to Shaftesbury. Jackie says better signage is needed for locals and visitors and that unnecessary signs should be removed. “We’ve got a huge number of duplicate signs. We don’t have much telling you what a building is,” she said.

Chairman of Shaftesbury Civic Society, Jackie Upton King

The three leaders of this project’s partner groups are all women and they have made the interesting decision to name this bid after King Alfred’s daughter, the Abbey’s first Abbess. It’s called Aethelgifu’s Legacy. “We had a wonderful speech at the opening of the Abbey by Helen Dawes – she was talking about Aethelgifu. I thought ‘a little bit of girl power!’ A lot is mentioned of Alfred but Aethelgifu needs a mention too,” said Claire.

If the grant money is awarded, a dedicated Project Officer will be employed. Shaftesbury is a town that, in part, functions because of many dedicated volunteers, but Virginia says that this funding is an enabler. “To have the financial resources to just go to professionals and get top-notch design input would be fantastic, because that is a stumbling block. To find people to volunteer or to give us preferential rates is all extremely time consuming. To just be able to approach it on a professional basis would be really exciting. We could really move on and achieve something bigger and better a lot quicker.”

Jackie agrees. “I think it’s a very challenging project, but if we could get that funding and bring it off, it will transform Shaftesbury Town Centre,” Jackie enthused.

Although any community can apply for this funding, few Dorset towns submitted grant requests. “As far as I know, only three towns in Dorset have applied. Obviously, there maybe more,” said Claire, who says the partner groups will now have to wait to hear whether they have been successful. “The bid that’s gone in is just an expression of interest. If we get a positive response, then we will be able to start scoping out the detail. Then we can do lots more engagement with the community to make sure that it’s a really strong solid project.”

Claire, who coordinated the application, feels that Shaftesbury is the type of town the funders would potentially support. “We tick a lot of the boxes that Historic England are wanting to protect. We are in a conservation area. We’ve got amazing history. And if we’re not successful, that shows how good our High Street already is, that we don’t need help.”