Forum for the future: Blandford’s DT11 Forum
The DT11 Forum Community Partnership covers Blandford and the surrounding villages, but what exactly is it and what are its plans, given the current funding squeeze? Nicci Brown finds out
Published in September ’12
The DT11 Forum is the most recently established of four community partnerships in North Dorset. All four are linked through CPEND (Community Partnerships Executive for North Dorset), which acts as a channel for the aspirations of all, and which in 2010 enabled the North Dorset group to be named as best community partnership in the country, for its work in developing a community planning model involving towns, parishes and the population at large.
The three other partnerships are Sturquest (for the Sturminster Newton area), the Three Rivers Partnership (for the Gillingham area), and the Shaftesbury Task Force. These three have been key to securing the success of a number of projects including the launch of a successful community magazine and creation of the impressive Exchange complex in Sturminster Newton, which opened in 2007, and a new leisure centre in Gillingham, which opened in 2009.
The DT11 Forum came into being in 2006, succeeding the abortive Stourford Circle and KickStart, and – unlike its predecessors which were largely town-centric – was developed using a model of inclusion of representation both from Blandford Forum itself and more than three dozen parishes surrounding the town.
It has been assisted by partnership development worker Jo Rose, and helped on its way by its chairman for the first three years Steve Adamson, who in 2007 chaired the trust that saved the tourist information service in the town. Steve was succeeded in 2009 by Bob Brannigan, a senior officer at Blandford Camp and currently deputy mayor of Blandford. He in turn was succeeded by Scott Norman, who has been chairman for the last three years. A retired businessman, who in July was chosen to carry the Olympic torch on its route through the county, Scott is also chairman of the North Dorset Citizens Advice Bureau and of his local Stourpaine parish council, and heavily involved in community affairs. ‘Sadly,’ he says, ‘we are trying to develop our outcomes at a different time to Sturminster and Gillingham when they embarked on their major projects. We have no RDA (Regional Development Agency), Liveability funding or even capital reserves for our potential project list, and external funding is also not so freely available.’ This has not limited the scope of the DT11 Forum’s ambition, however, as Scott explains: ‘By aiming high the chance of failure is greater, but that is the nature of the beast and should not put us off in our endeavours. There is a great deal of work being carried out on a daily basis to try to improve things for the public at large.’
The partnership is working with a group led by film director Jon Ivay, who are keen to establish an arts centre in Blandford. A business plan is now in place for the project, which has the working title of the ‘Fording Point’, to build on land owned by the William Williams Trust in the town, and various members of the group, together with DT11, are looking at funding opportunities. DT11 has also been a key player in a Rural Transport Survey conducted by all the North Dorset partnerships, and is intending to be a strong influence in the preparation of a Neighbourhood Plan for Blandford and surrounding parishes.
However, the current financial climate has meant it has not all been plain sailing, and two other potential projects are currently stalling. It had been hoped to develop a vacant pub in Blandford Town Centre as a hub, not only for the partnership, but also other groups such as Citizens Advice, allowing all the organisations to reap the benefit of the lower costs of shared premises. Funding has so far failed to materialise for the refurbishment of the Hall & Woodhouse-owned Three Choughs, and although the brewery has been asked for a further extension of a pre-lease agreement until the end of September to allow a number of funding bids to be decided, some of the groups originally expressing interest in the scheme have now found alternative accommodation. ‘If we cannot proceed,’ Scott says, ‘we shall look for alternative premises for DT11 in the centre of Blandford Forum.’
Hopes of establishing an environmental centre in a former school building on the edge of the North Dorset Trailway and a local nature reserve, The Milldown, have also been undermined by the desire
of Dorset County Council for the site to be developed for housing.
On a much brighter note, the partnership has been a key supporter of the recent development of the trailway, which follows the route of the old Somerset and Dorset railway line, and is on the verge of opening along the section of the route from Stourpaine to Blandford for walkers, horse riders and cyclists.
The Trailway will also provide a safe route to school for those living in villages along the route, and has attracted massive use on the already-opened stretch from Sturminster Newton to Stourpaine. The stretch from Shillingstone to Stourpaine, within the DT11 area, was reopened last year following the installation of a new footbridge to replace the railway bridge over the river Stour, which was removed when the railway closed. An opening event is expected to be held in early autumn for the section from Stourpaine to Blandford which will mean an unbroken route from Blandford to Sturminster Newton, and there are plans to extend north to Stalbridge, and south to Charlton Marshall, where another section of trailway is already in existence. ‘DT11, the North Dorset Trailway Group and DCC Rangers are looking at grant opportunities,’ Scott says, which will allow branches to come off, ‘to extend out from the Trailway with bridle paths replacing existing footpaths to various villages along the trail. The crossing of the Blandford bypass at Tesco in Blandford St Mary is also being looked at, and consultation with all groups will take place in due course. Research is now being carried out by Bournemouth University into the potential economic benefit of the trailway. Once we get to a certain length it will match trails such as the Camel Trail in Cornwall, and benefits are already developing for businesses, hotels, tea rooms and pubs from the increased numbers of visitors to the route.’
In a related move, the partnership’s most recent project is a literally ground-breaking scheme to use the old railway line as a fast-track route to superfast broadband. A team led by former partnership chairman Steve Adamson has developed the plan to lay fibre-optic cable along the route of the former Somerset & Dorset railway between Blandford and Sturminster Newton. The multi-million pound development includes creating spurs off to five or more villages alongside the route, and installing further optic fibre to individual premises: a total of 2000 homes and 100 businesses. It also has the potential to extend to other villages, and to the North Dorset Business Park in Sturminster Newton.
The scheme has received first-stage backing from the DEFRA Rural Broadband Fund, who have asked the DT11 Forum to produce a detailed application for a share of the funding being offered to schemes across the country to provide superfast broadband to the most rural areas which both commercial suppliers nor the county’s existing Superfast Broadband project have no plans to reach.
Some of the funding is expected to come from grants (from DEFRA and others), customers and industry partners, but the bulk will be invited – and is expected to be forthcoming – from private investors, private equity partnerships and venture capitalists, who see the development of broadband as a financially rewarding prospect. An Enterprise Investment Scheme is being considered to offer incentives and benefits to investors including relief on income tax and inheritance tax. The demand for faster broadband in the area was researched in a survey by CPEND, which was spearheaded by DT11. The survey had originally aimed to provide the evidence to persuade communication providers that they should deploy faster services in the region through exchange upgrades or installing fibre optic cable. But from this research emerged the idea of seeking DEFRA backing for a specific project in the rural area.
‘The district has a high proportion of people relying on broadband to promote and run their activities,’ says Steve Adamson, ‘as well as those keen to access services to download information, news and entertainment online. It is a very important opportunity for the area,’ Steve explains, ‘but we need thirty per cent of premises to sign up for it, otherwise the commercial reality is that it won’t get off the ground.’
More than 120 people attended a public meeting in Durweston village hall in June at which the project, its financing and its benefits were explained, and a large number of people, including business people, expressed dissatisfaction with the broadband speeds they were currently receiving. Guest speakers came from the telecoms and finance industries as well as the local community, including spokesmen for both the young and elderly, and Martin Oliver, managing director of the Great Dorset Steam Fair, which is based in Child Okeford. The meeting concluded with a thorough question and answer session, and the backing of the project by North Dorset MP Bob Walter. Work has now been carried out through an online survey at www.dt11forum.co.uk to substantiate demand for the service and to fully cost the project – which could serve as a model for other rural areas in the country, and to submit a full application to DEFRA by the time this article appears.
It could be said that the DT11 Forum’s primary role is to connect people, and in this respect it is well on track, both literally and metaphorically, thanks to two of its latest projects.