Shaftesbury’s Tourist Information Centre team is urging Dorset Council to apply its tourism funding fairly across the county and support our town’s TIC, before it runs out of cash in 2021. The Mayor has suggested moving the TIC into the Town Hall building. Alfred reports.
The former North Dorset District Council used to provide our local tourism services. When they pulled out of that provision fourteen years ago, the Blackmore Vale Tourism and Development Company (BVTDC) took over the role. They staff the TIC with 25 volunteers and a part-time paid manager, David Taylor.
David says that Dorset Council spend just under £290,000 a year underpinning four TICs, at Wareham, Lyme Regis, Sherborne and Dorchester. David argues that, as the new Dorset Council is a countywide authority, all tourist towns should be treated similarly. “I would suggest that everybody across Dorset should receive the same level of service,” said David.
He argues that a small annual grant would ensure the continuation of a service which assists many Shaftesbury visitors. “We get 27,000 people through that door every year. If we had between £5,000 and £10,000 a year to help running costs, we would be okay. We are eating into our reserves now. We will make the end of next year then, sometime in 2021, will be looking over our shoulder,” warned David.
David Griffin Shepherd, co-owner of La Fleur de Lys, is a director of the BVTDC. He’s written to advise Dorset Council that funding of the TIC from its reserves, ‘cannot go on indefinitely’. His letter explained that the TIC team has, ‘found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet because of changes in the way people access information and services’. The TIC has expanded into additional revenue streams including provision of some Waste Partnership services, council tax payments and as a pickup and drop off point for parcels
We asked Dorset Council for a comment on David’s appeal for funding and they issued a statement: “Dorset Council is carrying out reviews across many services. We will be reviewing the role of all tourist information centres as part of a wider economic development strategy, which includes visitor management. We are therefore not investing further in services of this nature at this current time.”
Shaftesbury’s Mayor and Dorset councillor Tim Cook met with David Griffin Shepherd and Anne Giberson from the BVTDC this week. “I will take the views of this community to Dorset Council. It is my responsibility. What they as a body decide, I will bring back here and tell people. I will have an input into it as a county councillor, if it ever comes as an agenda item for Dorset Council. I will vote in a way that supports the town,” said Tim.
Cllr Cook points out that Dorset Council has no statutory requirement to provide tourism services. That means that they could pull out of all tourism funding or reduce the amount they give. “The tourism budget is a discretionary service by Dorset Council,” said Tim.
At the moment, Dorset Council is spending just shy of £300,000 on four tourist information centres each year. The Shaftesbury TIC needs between £5,000 and £10,000 extra income annually. I put it to Tim Cook that if Dorset Council continues funding those other TICs, it would only be fair for the unitary authority to write a cheque for Shaftesbury TIC. “If they fund the other TICs I will make sure that Shaftesbury is considered for part of that money,” said Tim.
The new Dorset Council inherited the TIC building on Bell Street from the old North Dorset District Council. Mr Griffin Shepherd has formally asked Dorset Council if they would consider handing the building over to Shaftesbury Town Council. But in an email response, Dorset Council said no. “I think they’re hedging their bets and they believe that it is a major asset to them. We believe it’s a major asset for the town,” said Tim.
During a meeting with tourism directors this week, Tim suggested that the TIC could relocated to The Guildhall, the Town Hall’s downstairs space. “We as a town council facilitate ways of changing how the service is provided. We could create a space in The Guildhall and utilise that as a tourist information centre, drop-in centre and information centre. The TIC doesn’t just do tourism. They provide a whole host of services such as gas and electric charging keys,” said Tim.
The Mayor says that the BVTDC directors, ‘were not closed to the idea’ of moving the TIC to the High Street. That could be seen as a benefit for Dorset Council, who could then do whatever it wished with its property on Bell Street.
The TIC team also wants Dorset Council to reinstate the free parking permits for Bell Street car park which were used by volunteers until April last year. “North Dorset District Council said that they were grateful for what we did running tourism for them. Every year they gave us passes for the car parks so the volunteers could come in from Shillingstone, Gillingham and Motcombe and park their cars whilst they volunteered in the TIC. North Dorset honoured that. Dorset Council has pulled the plug. We now have to pay £1,000 each year to Dorset Council so that volunteers can park,” said David Taylor.
He is keen to highlight the economic benefit of the TIC volunteers’ efforts. David calculates that if the unpaid helpers were offered the minimum wage, the value of their work since North Dorset pulled out of tourism would be significant. “They have contributed just under £500,000 worth of time to the community,” he said.
We contacted Dorset Council about the permits, too. Their parking services manager, Paul Hutton, promptly replied to request more information about the number of concessions and when they were taken away. He says there were many local arrangements in place without consistency, but his team hope to establish some ‘proper protocols’ in the future. We have passed his email onto the TIC management.
Tim says he will share the TIC management’s position with Dorset Council but is unsure about reinstating the TIC volunteers’ parking permits. “If we were to insist upon this then, in theory, we should insist that Dorset Council give car parking passes to every business in this town. I do not recognise necessarily the fact that tourism is any more worthy than any other business in town.”
I asked Tim whether he would vote to support the reinstatement of permits, if it went to committee. “I’d have to think long and hard before I voted for it. I think, at best, I can say that I would abstain on a vote, at the moment.”
Tim has committed to more discussions in 2020. “We will set up a meeting between the portfolio holder for tourism from Dorset Council, ourselves, their ‘Head of People Director’ and representatives from BVTDC, to see whether we could find a way of providing services that this town needs, because it is a tourist town. We will balance that against how Dorset Council funds tourism,” he said.
David thinks it is ironic that photos of Gold Hill are often used by Visit England to encourage overseas tourists. But despite the role Shaftesbury performs in boosting Dorset’s visitor numbers, the home of the hill receives no cash support from the powers-that-be down in Dorchester. “I would suggest that everybody across Dorset should receive the same level of service,” said David. “We in Shaftesbury have the iconic image that brings overseas visitors to England and Dorset. We could do with a bit of help.”