Shaftesbury Town Council has been debating the challenges faced by our High Street. Councillors will pursue government grant money for town centre regeneration – and they could buy an empty retail unit to rent out cheaply, as a temporary ‘pop up shop’ or display.
The newspapers are full of stories proclaiming ‘the death of the high street’. Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce Chairman, David Perry, insists that our town centre’s independent businesses are doing well and that the number of empty units here is considerably lower than in comparable communities nearby.
But Shaftesbury Town Council thinks that they could make a difference by buying or leasing an empty town centre shop for use by start-up businesses or art exhibitions, on a short term basis. The purchase money could come from corporate developers.
Town Clerk, Claire Commons, explained how the costs could be met from Section 106 agreements. “It’s where a developer has put in a housing development and infrastructure requirements come out of that, such as a need for more play facilities or improved cycleways. It’s what they can’t provide for on the site of their development that is needed, because of the additional people coming into the town,” said Mrs Commons.
In last night’s Town Council meeting, Mayor Piers Brown explained that Lidl funds a bus that operates between their new, out-of-town Blandford Forum store and the town centre. It was part of a Section 106 arrangement agreed by North Dorset District Council when planning permission was agreed for that supermarket.
“On the whole, they tend to be for capital projects and they are negotiated by the planning authority with the developer. The role of the Town Council is to identify things using our local knowledge of the town, which would compensate for that additional infrastructure pressure,” said Claire.
Claire says there’s a difference between Section 106 funding already agreed for recent developments and money that will come from proposed housing or building projects. “The money already collected for developments that have been built has already been identified and there are legal contracts for how that is going to be used. That is set in one pot,” she said.
The recent Churchill retirement home development on Coppice Street generated around £300,000 in Section 106 money. £200,000 of that cash must go towards affordable housing and there’s £40,000 ring-fenced for open spaces and £35,000 for a new community hall.
“The other discussion relates to future developments that are coming up. What do we need that money to be collected for? What negotiations should the planning authority make with the developer, to make sure they are collecting for things that the town actually needs?” asked Claire.
Councillors are keen to investigate whether they should take on an empty retail unit and lease it out on a short-term basis. “The Council did a trial run last summer, taking advantage of an empty property on the High Street,” said Claire. The pop-up exhibitions and clothing sales in the former Fork and Flowers store on the High Street did generate interest. “It was very successful, so there’s a possibility that the Council might be able to acquire a property and then lease that at a reduced rate for community benefit, such as pop-up galleries.”
Claire says last night’s debate formed ‘the seed of an idea’ and there is no defined timeline for action, yet. “This might be something that, if the community is enthusiastic, Council might be prepared to put council tax money towards. We can ask this question of the community as the idea grows. But at the moment, we’re looking at Section 106 developer money,” she said.
Councillors have put plans to investigate whether Section 106 money could fund a cycle link between Shaftesbury and Motcombe on hold. The land ownership challenges in securing a suitable route means this is now considered ‘a long term project’.
But the Town Council wants Shaftesbury considered for cash from the government’s ‘Future High Streets Fund’. That pot of cash can assist in ‘renewing and reshaping town centres to improve experiences and drive growth’. The government expects projects, usually worth between £5 million and £10 million to be delivered through a public and private sector partnership, using matching funding.
Cllr Lester Taylor says that submitting an expression of interest is a ‘no-brainer’. Shaftesbury Town Council cannot go directly to government – they have to apply through North Dorset District Council, who can only pick one town in the district to go forward.