Shaftesbury Council Could Purchase The Wilderness

Shaftesbury Town Council could purchase and protect a unique part of Shaftesbury’s landscape after members of the Recreation and Open Spaces Committee voted to bid for The Wilderness at auction, if a residents’ survey supports their proposal.

The recommendation, made at last night’s meeting, will now go before the Full Council on Tuesday.

In October, the owner of The Wilderness announced that he intended to sell his woods and grazing land. Ever since Jim Clarke confirmed his intention, a group of Shaftesbury residents has been discussing ways to secure the land for the community. There have been calls for crowdsourcing the cash, to raise the auction reserve price of £60,000.

Residents show their support for The Wilderness

There are many reasons why people are so passionate about this 8.5 acre green space, which runs parallel to French Mill Lane. Sue Clifford was one of the residents who spoke at last night’s meeting.

“There are people, by the hundreds, who love it. They walk by with the dogs, their children, their girlfriends and boyfriends. It is one of those places that lures people from around town. The Walk for Health people stride along there. If it came within the town’s ownership it would be a real thrill because it could be managed for all of those things, each having their own place and time. It would come back into the fold of being ours.”

Sue said that this site is of significant importance. “Geology. Ecology. Archaeology. It’s where the town came from. It’s our parent, in a sense,” Sue said, referring to the old overgrown quarry, with a 20-foot quarry face, which lies within the woodland. “The greensand came out of that quarry and may even have built the Abbey. It certainly was being used in mediaeval times to build the High Street and St James,” Sue added.

Resident Claire Martin also spoke passionately about The Wilderness during the Town Hall debate. “It is just part of what Shaftesbury is. It’s an ancient site. It’s a quarry from which much of the town has been built,” said Claire.

The woodland is also considered important. Sue, a keen supporter of the Shaftesbury Tree Group, has recently approached the owners of Duncliffe and Kingsettle Woods, The Woodland Trust, to see if they would bid for the land. They were unable to do so. An approach to Dorset Wildlife Trust brought a similar response.

“The place is full of extraordinary trees. Oaks. Sycamore. There are some wonderful small leaf lime in there,” said Sue. “It’s full of badgers, bats, birds. It’s a whole layering of richness. And it’s part of our landscape. We stand on Park Walk looking out and it is the wooded ridge that stands in front of the medical centre. It is that part of the landscape that links us across town and across the valley in front of Melbury Hill.”

Vendor Jim Clarke lives next to The Wilderness. Last month he told that he would insist on a no development clause in the sale agreement. Jim said that he would be ‘a fool’ if he allowed the view from his bungalow, across St James, to be obscured by buildings. But councillors were concerned that a sale agreement may not be upheld in a decade or so.

Meeting Chairman George Hall explained that he walked his dog on The Wilderness and he believed that parts of the site were ‘developable’. Cllr Mark Jackson agreed, arguing that the site, opposite the doctors, was ‘a lovely bit of nice land’. Mark believed that ‘money talks’ and that ‘if you have deep pockets, you can build’.

Mayor Piers Brown felt the same way. “I know that in the past the current landowner has indicated that he doesn’t want to see the property developed but one of the main ways of assuring its long-term future is to put it into the realm of the local authority,” Piers said.

“We need it and I don’t want it to end up in the hands of a developer in 20 of 30 years time and see suddenly that there are loads of flats or buildings there, when we could have protected it today,” added deputy Mayor, Lester Taylor.

Piers felt that a covenant, of the sort suggested by Mr Clarke, would affect the sale price of the land. And he recommended that the Council approach the vendor before the site goes under the hammer. “I suggested that we knocked on the door and asked him whether he’d be open to receiving a paper offer,” said Piers.

Lester Taylor and Cllr Tim Cook backed that approach. Town Clerk Claire Commons has been asked to research the potential for using a professional negotiator. She’ll share her findings with Tuesday’s Full Council meeting.

Two separate plots of land will be auctioned, including an 18 acre parcel of pasture with a reserve price of £120,000, double that of The Wilderness. That lies in the Melbury and Cann Parish and although Mrs Commons confirmed that Shaftesbury Town Council could buy land outside its own parish, many councillors felt that securing the larger plot was not as important.

Sue Clifford agreed. “It would be quite a commitment, not simply in terms of the finance needed to buy both but also in terms of the future management. I would say that half of the second lot, which is called Whiting’s, is a sloping field and is much used by people when it comes to tobogganing time. It’s a good safe place to do that. A lot of people wander right across it, away from the footpath, with the dogs. The second field I don’t feel is so important and it could be a good grazing field for somebody, either to add to those or just for a pony.”

A small piece of land that links The Wilderness to Hawkesdene Lane is not being sold. Cllr Phil Proctor felt that arranging access to the road should be a condition of sale. He argued that tractors would need to get through for mowing. Some councillors were concerned that land which controls access could be worth a great deal to developers in the future.

Sue Clifford said that the owner had kept that portion of land out of the sale because his septic tank is there. “All of the questions need to be asked about access, such as how you get into both The Wilderness and Whiting’s Field,” Sue accepted.

If the Council buy the The Wilderness, they’ll have to decide what to do with the land, if anything. George Hall cited the site’s potential for woodland gyms and cycle tracks. Tim Cook took the opposite view. “I would not do anything to it. It’s called The Wilderness for a reason,” he said.

“I don’t think we should do very much to it at all,” said Sue. “I think that the actual quarry bit will need some management, to be safe and to ensure that the growth of the trees goes well. I think the grassland on top will need some cutting from time to time but I actually don’t think it needs much doing to it. I don’t know if people would want benches. It is up to everybody to talk about it but I think the more nature-based it is, the more comfortable people will be.”

Cllr Jeanne Loader summed up the apparent mood of the meeting. “Having heard the passion of the public we ought to go for it,” she said. A dozen residents had attended the meeting to show their enthusiasm for the site but Town Clerk, Mrs Commons, cautioned that the wider community would need consulting. “I urge you to get a bigger groundswell of opinion,” Claire said. A web poll will solicit feedback and its results will be shared with the Full Council who will make the final decision.

The auction will take place on 14th December. In order to meet that tight deadline, the Council would need to buy the land although it could be sold to a not-for-profit community group, such as a community land trust, in the future.

Claire Martin said she was pleased that The Wilderness was so well supported. “I was extraordinarily surprised about the positive response, about everybody’s unanimity. Nobody had anything other to say than ‘let’s go for it’. It seemed to me that a very positive result cameout, about trying to talk to the owner before the auction.”

You can offer the Council your feedback on the proposal to purchase the site on the Shaftesbury Town Council website.