How Shaftesbury is regaining its confidence
PUBLISHED: 14:55 23 February 2018 | UPDATED: 14:59 23 February 2018
Gay Pirrie-Weir talks to the Mayor of Shaftesbury, John Lewer about how this historic hilltop town is rediscovering its confidence and celebrating its great community spirit
John Lewer’s unanticipated accession to Shaftesbury’s Mayoralty might have been the result of a confidence motion, but he’s determined that, before his 16 months in office ends in May 2018, Dorset’s Saxon hilltop settlement will have rediscovered its own confidence.
Across the world, more or less any English guidebook will include an image of Gold Hill, the steep cobbled street that leads down from Shaftesbury town centre to St James. But with a population of about 7,000 and almost 1,000 new homes in the pipeline, the growing town is now struggling with a road system that can’t deal with the demands of 21st century traffic. That’s one aspect of life in Shaftesbury that engineer John Lewer wants to address - in consultation with his fellow Shastonians.
He first visited Shaftesbury as a 16-year-old, en route with his family from their Isle of Wight home to holiday in Somerset. He didn’t return until 1982, when he and his wife Liz bought “the next OS map up.”
Newly engaged to Liz, and with a degree in electrical engineering, John decided to leave London for the country. The couple agreed he would take the next available job and that was as a civilian lecturer at Blandford army camp, where he stayed for 25 years.
The Lewers were (and still are) keen hill walkers, so they bought an OS map of their new home area and explored. When John was promoted, they moved just south of Shaftesbury – buying the next map northwards. The town has been their home since then, and 22 years later they moved “a little north” to their current house in Layton Lane. “It was the views that sold it to us,” says John.
There were changes afoot at Blandford, and John resigned, retraining as a domestic electrician re-wiring people’s house. “Apart from walking, my main hobbies have always been practical – DIY – and I really enjoyed meeting people,” he says.
In 2010, frustrated by the situation on Shaftesbury Town Council, John, who had never served in public office, insisted on a proper by-election in his ward, but 36 hours before nominations closed, no-one had put themselves forward. “I’m a faithful follower rather than a natural leader,” he says, “But I really had no choice.”
An opponent immediately lodged his own nomination papers, but John won by a healthy majority, and he has been a town councillor ever since.
“During the next few months, many new councillors came ... and went. We took a big step forward in 2015, by which time nine of the 12 members believed we HAD to do something to improve things.”
Changes in the staffing of the council offices, including the appointment of a business manager whose important function is liaison with local organisations - both business and social - has helped the town’s reputation.
“I want to see efficiency of members, relationships with organisations and a spirit of co-operation,” says John. “Not dictating but enabling the many things that Shaftesbury wants and needs.”
Since March 2017, John, now in his role as Mayor of Shaftesbury, has been working on a five-year strategic plan to make the town a better place for tourists, shoppers, businesses and pedestrians (Mrs Lewer is keen to re-instate the much-missed zebra crossings).
“What we need is proper consultation,” he says. On 23rd January the first meeting for the Neighbourhood Plan will be held in the Town Hall, at which people will be invited to join the steering group (which will have between six and 20 members). Over the next three years they will work together to discover what the town’s residents need and want, then formulate a plan to make it happen.
“The challenge will be to reduce and control traffic and maintain the trade for the businesses that make Shaftesbury unique,” says John, adding that he also wants to see more public land included in developments, but not just for playgrounds. “What about outdoor gyms ... cycle paths ... ways to keep everyone fitter,” he suggests.
The future of the Westminster Memorial Hospital is also high on his list. The first battle has been won, but there are more issues ahead. “We want its functions and facilities to stay in the town, for the long term,” he says
Freeing up employment land, perhaps by providing some infrastructure, is an essential. In a time when Dorset’s district councils are negotiating their own combined futures, Shaftesbury’s requirements will need added emphasis. And the younger residents of Shaftesbury have not been forgotten. The town council is planning to set up a Youth Council in conjunction with local schools and youth organisations.
There is plenty going on in the town even in the depths of February. Residents are already gearing up to celebrate the coming of spring with its annual Snowdrop Festival, a legacy established for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And then there are the summer events which draw in visitors such as the Gold Hill Fair and the Shaftesbury Fringe.
John is keen to revive the town’s Byzant ceremony, last produced in June 2006 by Myra McDadd and a band of local actors and dancers. It marks the town’s historical dependence on the springs at the bottom of the hill for its water supply.
John says he sees his Mayoralty as a chance to promote the town, in a way that is beneficial to its residents and businesses rather than as a demonstration of civic pomp.
“Shaftesbury is full of friendly, helpful and very caring people, who have been working quietly together for each other for decades,” he says proudly.
By the time he hands over the chain of office in May 2018, with another years’ membership of the council ahead, John Lewer is hoping that he and his colleagues will be known as “the council that says ‘How can we help you?’”
Shaftesbury’s Community Spirit
“I love Shaftesbury’s strength of community. It can take at least 20 minutes to walk down the High Street because of all the people you meet. I want our churches to help foster that sense of community as our town grows. That gets harder when there are lots of new houses at once, but if anywhere can make it work, Shaftesbury can.”
The Revd Helen Dawes, Team Rector of Shaftesbury
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