Civic Society Re-Assessing Town Forum Idea After Shaftesbury Council Declines Participation

Shaftesbury Civic Society is considering how to proceed after the Town Council rejected its proposal for a quarterly forum of community groups and decision-makers to discuss residents’ concerns.

Shaftesbury Civic Society Chair Jackie Upton King wrote to the town clerk and mayor in December outlining her charity’s vision to hold town debates and discussions. In her letter, Jackie explained that the society wants to forge closer links with town organisations so that volunteers’ efforts can be ‘better harnessed’.

Mrs Upton King feels that groups with similar aspirations sometimes duplicate efforts. If organisations were brought together and communicated with one another, each group would know what was being planned and by whom.

Jackie Upton King

Jackie has a wider concern about local democracy. She is unsure whether Shaftesbury residents feel connected with the decision-makers at Dorset Council down in Dorchester. Her proposal suggested inviting their officers to regular meetings with the Town Council and community groups. “A forum where we could just freely talk and get some answers from the people that have the answers,” said Jackie.

In her letter to the Town Hall, Jackie suggested inviting Dorset Council’s planning officers, Shaftesbury’s Open Spaces group and the Neighbourhood Plan committee to join other groups and her own society, to talk about issues which matter to the town.

She doesn’t think our challenges in North Dorset are unique. “The level of misinformation, cynicism and mistrust that is throughout the country has become very apparent in the last year. It was to try and pull together a system where different parts of the community will come together and talk about their concerns with experts,” said Jackie.

She wants to help people understand how and why decisions affecting Shaftesbury are made. “Who it is that makes the rules, how the rules are applied and how difficult those constraints are,” she said.

Jackie’s letter suggested that the discussion of planning applications that significantly impact on Shaftesbury would form part of her proposed forum’s work. “Planning is a big issue and it’s very clear from what is on social media that most people don’t understand how the planning system works and where the rules come from. They blame the wrong people when developments are permitted, which they don’t agree with,” she said.

Jackie says the decision to allow a new housing development on the Higher Blandford Road is an example. It was the Bristol-based Planning Inspector who approved this new estate. The developer had successfully appealed against the former North Dorset Council’s decision to refuse permission.

“People will blame the Town Council for that but it’s actually all about central government rules and concepts around land supply and future development that most people don’t understand. It would be really nice to have a forum where we could bash that out and get some good information going back to our community, so that when future applications come, we can reply to them on a more informed basis,” said Jackie.

Councillors discussed the Civic Society’s request to join a forum during Tuesday’s Full Council meeting. But Cllr Alex Chase believed that the public participation section in Town Council meetings was effectively that forum. Members of the public have three minutes to express their opinions or ask questions at the start of each meeting. Cllr Peter Yeo took a similar position. “At the moment it works quite well, where any group can come and brief the whole council,” Peter said.

Jackie understood the councillors’ position, but she doesn’t believe the council meetings always get answers for members of the public. “People who are not there, like people from our county council and our MP, those who make the rules or apply the rules, are not at those open sessions. The Town Council is important to our community life, but it isn’t the body that makes the rules. It’s the body that tries to apply some of them,” she explained.

Jackie doesn’t believe that standing up before the council and addressing councillors with a three-minute time limit is ideal. “Those sessions are not that welcoming. It isn’t easy to stand up and say things. It’s interesting to sit there and listen but sometimes that’s a bit dispiriting as well.”

Cllr John Lewer encouraged the Civic Society to set up the forum. He said he would go along. “We should be seen to be talking to each other about things that affect us all,” he told the meeting. But Cllr Yeo felt that all councillors, rather than just one or two, should take part in any forum.

Whilst Cllr Andy Hollingshead praised the Civic Society’s work in responding to planning applications and said he was happy to discuss issues with them, he was, ‘not 100% sure that there would be a huge amount to gain with yet another layer of semi-official governance within the town’.

Mayor Tim Cook recognised that the Civic Society was, ‘working for the good of everyone’, but he also felt that another layer of consultation would ‘muddy’ issues. And Cllr Chase felt that councillors were easily contactable, as their email addresses are publicly available.

As the mayor asked for the comments of councillors sat around the table, the mood of the meeting was clear. Jackie didn’t get the support of the Town Council, but she says the forum idea isn’t dead. The Civic Society will discuss the next steps for community engagement. “We will look at whether there is any mileage in trying to set up something ourselves and include the groups and societies within the community, just to try and get a better community understanding going,” said Jackie.

I asked Jackie whether this concept would work without the council playing a part in the forum. “In an ideal world, if we could get many of the community groups working together, that would ensure that the council would take part because we don’t want to set up a rival organisation. But the pressure would be for everybody to join together, which is really what we are all about. We’re trying to get the community, as a whole, to work together,” said Jackie.