Dorchester’s historic market could be moved from the Fairfield to another town-centre site to make way for a new retail park opposite Brewery Square.
The shock move is part of a new ‘masterplan’ to revitalise Dorchester and attract more retailers to the town.
A new site for the market – regarded by many as one of the jewels in Dorchester’s crown – has not yet been identified.
Established on the present site in 1860 by Thomas Ensor, the market dates back to Roman times, and was given an exclusive charter by Charles I.
The plan being drawn up by West Dorset District Council (WDDC) would see the Fairfield site – used as a car park on most days – become a vibrant new hub for non-food retailers.
Brands queuing up
Despite the empty shops in town, the council claims big brands are queuing up to come to Dorchester but can’t find large enough units.
Meanwhile there would be a new scheme for the Charles Street car park site, focused on food retailing.
The previous project to develop the Charles Street site, complete with underground car park, was abandoned after English Heritage ruled it would damage archaeology deemed to be of “national importance”.
This part of the scheme has already been slammed by town councillor Alistair Chisholm, who says the town’s rich archaeological heritage is still being ignored.
The new masterplan follows a retail survey by global real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, and a tourism survey of West Dorset by leisure consultants Blue Sail.
At a press briefing on Friday, the council insisted the plan would incorporate a ‘cultural quarter’, focused on the Shire Hall project and the soon-to-be-extended Dorset County Museum. There will also be extensive public consultation.
However, there was no mention of exploring the tourist potential of the rich Roman and Neolithic archaeology under the Charles Street site, as many have called for.
The Roman baths site exposed during the excavations in 1977-78
Photo: Susanne Armstrong
WDDC council leader Cllr Anthony Alford said they “might consider” looking at ways to open up the Roman baths under the Wollaston Field car park, opposite the Charles Street site.
Cllr Alford said the council wanted to keep the market in the centre of town. “The market is something very important to us and we do need to find the right location for it, and a location which enables it to fit well with everything else that will happen in the town centre of Dorchester,” he said.
The masterplan would aim to replace any lost parking in the two retail developments so there would be no overall loss of spaces.
Rather than building costly multi-storey car parks, requiring extensive foundations that might damage archaeology, the council is now looking at using lightweight, decked (two-tier) parking of the type often seen at railway park-and-ride schemes, albeit ‘prettified’.
“We recognise the amount of excavation on the Charles Street site will have to be limited and we will… create as least disturbance as we can,” said Cllr Alford.
He warned the risk of doing nothing was the town might lose one of its existing big retail players. Although he wouldn’t name names, Marks & Spencer’s and Waitrose were anchor stores for the previous Charles Street scheme.
‘Town punching below its weight’
Martin Hamilton, strategic director of the Dorset Councils Partnership, admitted the Blue Sail survey had shown that Dorchester was “punching below its weight” when it comes to tourism.
But he said there was “a real strengthening of the town’s cultural offer, with things like Shire Hall coming on stream early next year and the improvements at the Dorset County Museum”.
However Cllr Chisholm, who has long campaigned for more to be made of Dorchester’s tourism potential, warned the new masterplan could be a lost opportunity.
“Without the Roman baths it’s not a masterplan, it’s just walking down the same road, the same rut – this idea they seem to be fixated on of Dorchester just becoming another sub-regional shopping centre… It’s an appalling indictment in a town that’s so rich in heritage.
“They are told at the end of the last attempt that what they have under Charles Street is of national importance and that washes off them like water off duck’s back.
“Surely that means that perhaps you should start from another point? We’ve got all this heritage – I’m not suggesting you can turn the whole of Charles Street into an archaeological site, but you’ve got the baths, the Neolithic henge post-holes and the ceremonial avenue right beside each other – did that feature at all in their masterplan? There’s nothing masterly about it.
“I think it’s sad when you’ve got those treasures underground, and with modern forms of presentation, you play to your strengths. Once you’ve got people attracted to those things then of course they are going to want to stay, they are going to want to spend money.”
Cllr Chisholm said he did not have a problem with moving the market, providing it remained in the town centre. “I think it needs to shift its focus and become a bit more like Bridport, which has an immensely good street market two days a week and outshines Dorchester, in my opinion – it’s far more interesting and varied and cosmopolitan.”
The proposals will be discussed at a meeting of the council’s strategy committee on 1 August.
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