Shaftesbury Town Council has revealed how much of our council tax it needs to deliver its services next year. And at last night’s public meeting, council officers outlined the council’s planned community, environmental and economic development projects covering the next five years.
The Town Council is proposing a budget of just under £502,000 for the next financial year – around £1,000 more than this current year. It will be an estimated 8% of residents’ council tax, collected by Dorset Council. Town Council services will cost a Band D property owner between £153 and £156 next year.
Business Manager Brie Logan guided residents through the council’s proposed objectives running until 2024. But first, Mrs Logan explained that 13 longstanding schemes that had stalled or been classed as unnecessary were removed from the to-do list. “It’s either because the project has naturally come to an end or, by the end of this financial year, the allocated funds will have been spent,” said Brie.
If money had been ring fenced for projects that have been paused, that cash can now be redistributed. “The reallocation of these funds has generated just under £115,000,” Brie added. Ideas ‘put on a back burner’ include a footbridge across Christy’s Lane. “That is still within the plan as a background project but is not something that has the potential to ‘go live’ in the next 24 months. It’s a huge cost, and it doesn’t fall within the remit of Shaftesbury Town Council. That would be a Highways project,” said Brie.
Similarly, Victorian-style streetlights are no longer a priority for Bell Street and St James. “Heritage lanterns have been an aspirational project for years. Again, this falls under the remit of Dorset Council Highways. We never say never, and if they came back to us with a plan that we could work together on to bring new lights to those historic parts of the town, it would be considered.”
The Council had briefly considered buying some of the land Lidl might not require for their store on the former Cattle Market site. But Brie says it is unclear what is on offer, so that project has also been relegated from the ‘premier league’ action list.
And the brakes have been put on a suggested cycle way linking Gillingham and Shaftesbury. “It’s a complex situation because a lot of the land between is in private ownership. We have created a new project, linked to the Neighbourhood Plan, which looks at firstly improving our cycleways and footpath networks around the town. A future project would look at how those networks extend to adjoining towns and villages,” said Brie.
A third party has effectively cancelled the council’s most ambitious proposal. The former North Dorset Council had given the Town Council £70,000 help to fund the purchase of the former Co-op supermarket on Bell Street. But there are higher commercial bidders.
“Shaftesbury Town Council presented its bid in December. We were one of six bids and we know that there were higher bids than ours. The managing agents are considering those two bids. It is highly likely that one of those two will be successful,” Brie said.
If there’s no word from the agent by midnight on Halloween, the Town Council’s bid is withdrawn. It is understood that one of the two highest bids is retail based and another is a hospitality business, reportedly an hotel.
Some of the Project Belle supermarket bid money can be redirected towards an empty High Street shop. Councillors are considering taking on the head lease of a vacant town centre premises. “We’ve gathered so much feedback from the Neighbourhood Plan consultation that we know the community is keen for a supermarket-type shop at the top end of the town. There are opportunities to develop a community-led shop. Many things need to be considered,” said Brie. A property could also host a rotating range of ‘pop-up shops’.
Oasis Swimming Pool enhancements feature as part of the five-year plan. “There will be improved showers and better toilet facilities,” said Brie, adding that a defibrillator will also be provided. Users aged 16-18 will be also offered cheaper pool admission.
For St James youngsters, a remodelled playground is on the cards. The council has earmarked £25,000 for this work. “We’re looking at options for creating a more natural playing environment,” said Brie. It would use wooden equipment rather than the brighter metal or plastic playpark kit used elsewhere. “Before a decision is made, we would ask the young people of the town about their preferences,” she added.
Councillors want to support the introduction of a park run in Shaftesbury. These popular Saturday morning 5km sessions take place all over the world and are considered highly inclusive of people of all ages and abilities. “Surrounding towns are operating really good park runs. We believe there is a scope to introduce the national framework into the town. We are at the early stages and we need to research this option with the avid runners in town,” said Brie.
Staying with outdoors-based projects, the council’s five-year strategy considers introducing picnic areas and creating a footpath around the crest of Castle Hill. And £15,000 has been set aside for finalising the town tree planting plan.
The Town Council declared a climate emergency in July. Related projects in the masterplan will address making free drinking water available in town for locals and visitors. Educational exercises will encourage businesses and residents to adopt lighting that reduces light pollution. That’s important because Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has recently been granted Dark Sky Reserve accreditation.
The council is emphasising the important role that tourism plays in the town’s economy in many of these policies. “Compared to a lot of high streets, we are in a good position. We have a lot of independent shops. We want to support them by doing as much as we can to drive footfall into the town. Everything we do will either encourage visitors to spend longer here or residents to enjoy the town as a great place to live, work and visit,” said Brie.
As the supermarket bid was unsuccessful, that bid money from the former North Dorset District Council must now be used for improving signage, according to their grant conditions. Better signage to guide visitors around Shaftesbury’s beautiful vistas of Gold Hill, Park Walk and Castle Hill is being proposed.
“When our visitors arrive here they will see a clear navigational route, so they can find our hidden treasures,” said Brie. Again, with tourists’ first impressions in mind, more attractive railings at Jubilee Steps and additional litter bins feature in the plan.
Work to evaluate and potentially improve the town’s markets will also be undertaken in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce.
During the public meeting, Mrs Logan explained that there are 17 public venues which can be hired around the town, but they are underused and are at 40% capacity. The Neighbourhood Plan consultation revealed that 58% of residents want some of the existing facilities enhanced. But the council also recognises demands for a community facility east of Christy’s Lane.
“People want a facility in the east of the town. Is that a hall? A community centre? Something large or small?” posed Brie. “We know a lot of work has been done on this, but we are heading into 2020 and need to make sure we’re working on the solution that meets the needs of the people who live on the eastern side of town. We want to make sure that we consider the options together with residents who will be using a facility.”
The Town Council will spend some of its budget on its own facilities. The website will be developed to improve the user experience. The grade I listed Town Hall requires maintenance work, too. Around £120,000 will be set-aside over the next two years for remedial work.
“We do have issues with lots of leaks. It is not the most energy efficient building and we know that many things need to be fixed.” A soon-to-be commissioned survey will highlight the extent of works.
From within this historic building, council officers and staff have tried to gaze into the Shaftesbury of the near future. The council has committed to investigating the potential for electric vehicle charging points, but government policy has altered recently, and the council is approaching this area with a degree of caution. Technology is changing at pace.
“The two main car parks are managed by Dorset Council. That would require collaboration to make sure that we are all joined up and thinking about the best places to locate those options,” said Brie.
Residents were asked to share their opinions on the proposed projects in last night’s meeting. Anyone attending the presentation may have been impressed by the range of projects being proposed by a council with a relatively small, £0.5m council tax income. It will be fascinating to read this plan again in 2024, to see how many projects are amended or cancelled as demands and trends change or technology advances.