Does nobody do joined up thinking any more?
I’ve just received the latest update for our community forum, and I just cannot understand whether the problems on the agenda for discussion arise for a lack of holistic thinking, incompetence or deliberate idiocy.
If you think I might be being a little harsh, here’s why.
There was a plan for the development of Ashford. Not a perfect plan, but a plan none the less with themed zones, some sort of coherence. Ashford’s Future, the public-private regeneration agency tasked with bringing this about closes its doors at the end of March 2011, to be replaced by three people based within Ashford Borough Council.
The information on the community forum letter informs me that:
- there are plans to move the post office depot out of its current location in the new commercial quarter where it is convenient and useful and a reason for people to come into the town centre. Kent Wool Growers would be affected too;
- despite the units standing empty in the town and the creation of a commercial zone at the other end of the town, there is a plan to build on the lovely fields of The Warren – residential, sheltered housing and commercial properties plus a 6-storey car park;
- there are also plans to build town houses along the waterfront of the river Stour;
- there are plans to build over the Dover Place car park (cheaper than station car parks, convenient town centre location, shortens the walk to the station);
- the planned park and ride is unlikely to be finished. This is probably sensible because there is nothing for people to ride to see at present…
What is wrong with this picture?
Let’s look at this sensibly. First of all we need to look at the town centre.
The Town Centre should be the town’s heart. At present it feels as though Ashford has had a bypass.
Part of Ashford’s problem is that there’s a constant stream of focus away from the town centre.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Singleton Environment Centre, going to the cinema at Eureka park, eating out in Kennington, Willesborough and the villages, friendly shopping at Waitrose, getting everything I need in one place at the two large Tescos… but what about the town centre?
What’s wrong with coming INTO town to get the parcels the post office has failed in its job of actually delivering to you, and spending a bit of money in town when you do so?
One question to consider is, how has Maidstone got it so right with their Fremlin’s Walk town centre redevelopment?
According to the Ashford Town Centre Partnership about one in seven retail units is empty at present in the town centre. It feels like more.
What Ashford TCP don’t tell you – presumably because they are paid for by the stores that do remain in town – is that so many of the units that are occupied are hairdressers, estate agents, charities, mobile phone shops, discount stores, pawnbrokers, Brighthouse etc. This implies a certain type of shopping in Ashford – task- or list-oriented rather than as a leisure pursuit.
- The higher end women’s clothes stores (the Monsoon, East, Joules end) have all established in Tenterden (close enough not to be in Ashford too but not close enough to pop over as part of a combined shopping trip),
- the major department stores are in Maidstone, Canterbury and surrounding towns. It’s the department stores that make the difference: Ashford actually has many of the same shops as Maidstone, but the good quality extra ones (e.g. Pumpkin Patch, Zara, nice chain restaurants like La Tasca) may have been attracted by the presence of the big House of Frazer.
- In Ashford we have a town centre where there’s much excitement that the new store in town is Poundstretcher (bargainous, I’m told, and despite the name not a pound shop – more like a cheaper Wilkinsons). One unit down – how many to go?
- If Ashford is looking to attract affluence, then it’s worth noting there’s no place to get a suit measured – well, only one place at the McArthur Glen designer centre, but despite the efforts to run a bus etc.
I am sceptical that visits to the shops there translate into combined shopping trips to the town centre in any case and would like to see the figures.
- As for local shops – well, all I can say is that if you want only to buy your meat in a supermarket, don’t both using local shops. That way they’ll go and you’ll have got your wish.
Of course we’ve got a Dobbies garden centre with a food hall now (owned by Tesco though they don’t like to advertise that), and the excellent Rachel’s Deli if you leave town in the other direction – but you need a car or bus to get to either…
The business rates and rents in the town centre are too high for many new businesses too – surely reducing these would mean a chance to bring more new, interesting (non-hairdressing) businesses into the town centre?
- Business-wise, given our Eurostar links and proximity to the channel tunnel, where’s our French (and Belgian) high street businesses?
- Given the high speed train, where’s the relocation out of London to take advantage of the 70% lower costs? Is it all at Eureka Park and outside the centre? Or is it just not coming yet?
I emailed Ashford TCP about some of this and the response I got was detailed but could effectively be summarised by having a John Lewis is not the only ambition for a town.
Well, that’s lovely but without something like that, it is hard to see how anything is going to be attracted to a town centre that basically is stagnating while the development goes on around the outskirts.
Yet Ashford is meant to be a growth area – it would be great if it could be one of the government’s enterprise zones (but I rather suspect that will be Medway and Thanet ahead of Ashford). There needs to be something for all the new residents to do.
How does housing fit?
There’s a lot of new flats along Station Road – much as I approve of an increase in town centre living and they look great, I’m still not sure exactly who they are for – where are the jobs that need staff that would want to live in two bed flats in the town centre? Or are they intended to be close to the station for people looking to commute out of Ashford on the high speed or other train service?
The blocks also contain retail units and office space. I’m used to that after Belgium where you often found GP surgeries, chiropractors, physiotherapists and more based on the ground floor of residential blocks. Actually it’s rather a good idea, but I’d ask again – if one in seven units already existing in the town centre is empty, exactly what businesses are going to take up the leases in these new retail units, especially as they are outside the central bit of town in an area where the only other retail unit (guess what, a hairdressers) recently closed?
These new blocks are great to look at, but the monstrous wreck of the condemned flats on North Street/ Somerset Road literally just round the corner show another issue.
This eyesore of a block has had several planning applications made on it, but each time the sort of application is wrong – small flats with no outside space planned in for the young families that it is anticipated would move in. What it needs in that space is more family-focused housing, to take advantage of the childcare and the existing communities around the Albert Road area. Bit I gather no plans of that type have ever been submitted for that site.
For goodness sake.
I know the building industry is about maximising profits, but town planning has to involve saying what is wanted and needed as well as just turning down the unsuitable applications if enough local residents can be bothered to object.
You do have to wonder though, at what point the dreadful effect of the boarded up block on the area is outweighed by the benefit of building something, anything new – and whether that’s the developers’ ultimate plan?
Someone, somewhere, needs to be taking a view about who needs to live in the town centre and why, and encouraging that sort of property to be built. And is it green? While all new property needs to meet high environmental standards, I still see no reason why rainwater collection or solar panels should not be expected as standard if quite so many new homes are being built.
And at the other end of town, there are plans for building on the green fields behind the Godinton Park housing estate rather than on brown field, and a plan for new houses, sheltered housing and offices/ retail to be built on the Warren, a nice, green part of the Ashford semi-rural area. This would include a 6-storey car park.
While both seem daft, the latter is particularly offensive. Why wreck the Warren? If you have a zonal approach to building in Ashford, why does this need to be on a green field at the other end of town from the commercial zone?
Similarly stupid, there are plans to put more town houses along the river front. Presumably the thinking is that river views command a premium. Again that’s lovely for developers but what about the local community?
Hold on, aren’t we trying to attract people to the town?
Isn’t this an opportunity?
Why not put the town house style family housing on the site of the derelict flats on North Street, not too many, and with parking and gardens, and put flats down by the river? They could have river views rather than the space for the gardens that children need, and lovely restaurants underneath and – with plazas as communal spaces – redevelop that whole area too, which links via the green corridor idea to the town centre?
And if you must build yet more commercial units that have not currently got contracts for use and to build them over Dover Place (the cheapest of the station car parks that is also closest to town and cutting through it cuts the journey on foot to the station by at least 4 minutes), then why not say to the company looking to deface The Warren that they can build their building and multi-storey car park there where its more appropriate?
Planning decisions are vital here, and there needs to be a clear vision of the strategy for Ashford’s growth overall taken into consideration, not just an idea of whether any one proposal is not too opposed.
Finally, we went for a drive round some of the new estates the other day (well, I was practicing my driving round them) and we noticed there’s nowhere to come together as a community.
It’s not just no community hall, for Orchard Heights its also no local shop closer than Waitrose, no pub, nowhere to hold toddler groups.
In Singleton, there was no community hall until Great Chart church got involved – why has Ashford Borough Council allowed this mistake to be repeated on the new estates?
There should be a big (society) banner above the heads of the planning committee saying “Don’t just build homes, build communities”.
In redeveloping Ashford, we need to think about people as well as investment. That doesn’t mean that we should be BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything/ Anyone).
It means we should look holistically at developments, try to build on brown field, look for job creation, work out sensibly the sort of housing units needed to build the community sustainably – that doesn’t just mean always having a social housing element to any development, it also means thinking about the size of the housing and the needs of its potential occupants rather than just the maximum profit that can be derived from a site.
While the political side of the housing issue is going to be fought out in public in the local elections with the advent of Ashford Independents, I think the issue is a bit more complicated than that.
I think we need to think about what we want Ashford to be, what we want its future to be.
It might be the end for Ashford’s Future, but that just makes it more important that the residents stand up to be counted and tell the world what we want Ashford to look like in 5, 10, 20 years and longer.