Dear local politicians – we have a problem with Ashford Town Centre. It doesn’t work. Here’s why, and what to do about it…
1) Town Centre retail doesn’t cut it
- There are far too many hairdressers, charity shops, discount stores, betting shops and estate agents, and not enough shops to actually buy essentials. How can these shops afford the rents but others can’t?
- Ashford town centre has no shop selling fitted shoes. Children need school shoes, that necessitates a trip into town (which with pester power and attractive shops around bringing additional spending), but that town cannot be Ashford.
- The retail units are too small – M&S and Debenhams in Ashford don’t stock a big enough range to be attractive to a broad spectrum of shoppers, so they lose out. They are therefore not the destination stores that they could be.
- Without destination stores, other stores cannot flourish unless they are competing to offer bargains over quality. Independent stores, such as Savia, are closing down.
- In any case, the traditional high street no longer reflects how most people shop.
- The parking is expensive compared with the delivery charges on internet shopping.
2) The Designer Outlet shopping is an alternative centre
- People go for a shopping trip to the centre they can walk around and where they can park for £1. With a footfall of over 3 million a year, this is a success story.
- The outlet is too far from town for shoppers to easily choose to go between the two.
3) The non-retail side of Ashford is played down
- The town centre has still got some history and heritage, but the tourist office is hidden and doesn’t even offer the two walks guide any more.
- The memorial gardens are the only significant green space centrally, but don’t offer anything except grass for young children.
- Revelation St Mary isn’t as full as it could be.
- Cafes are scattered, you have to choose which part of the town you want to go to to get coffee. those that are there haven’t thought through who their clients are likely to be – no space for push chairs, no children’s area, no outdoor seating.
Some radical thinking:
1) Retail alone is not the answer:
Ashford is not a city filled with students with loans to spend, and is too close to Canterbury, Maidstone and Tenterden to compete with all the destination stores they have. In any case, the sort of units available to stores don’t seem to match what people say they want. A town needs more than just filled units, it needs people to want to go there. So Ashford needs something different.
2) What does Ashford have?:
- There is a thriving craft scene. Many of the businesses that went into the (now closed) pop-up store were crafty in some way.
- Ashford has a railway heritage and is conveniently located for business and tourism.
- Ashford has an international station.
- Ashford has a giant outlet shopping centre away from the town centre, and other satellite destination zones (John Lewis, Eureka park etc.)
- With the arrival of residents in the Panorama building, the town centre will have residents! There are also quite a lot of families in the villages and estates around Ashford (just think about Repton, Orchard Heights, Singleton, Finberry, Park Farm/ Kingsnorth, Kennington, Willesborough, Great Chart, Stanhope, South Ashford and that’s just the first three miles from the town centre!) but Ashford has little for families in the centre.
- Ashford has plans for Elwick Place, including a hotel and a cinema, plus decent restaurants. Elwick Place spans the gap between the International Station and the town centre.
- The Borough Council is buying Park Mall. This gives local democratic control over a significant area of town and a chance to do something with those empty units…
Start with the outlet. yes, expand it. But if you do that, it needs to link to the station (that’s probably on foot but it needs to be safe, well lit and frequently used) and to town. An irregular bus service won’t cut it. Instead, the transport needs to be the destination. That means something like this…
…although there is something a bit Simpsons about a monorail (this one is a Hitachi, photo from the linked webpage). But given the investment needed for the set up and the cost of running, that’s clearly a no-go. So, instead, you need one of these…
This is the Petit Train Touristique at Le Touquet, as pictured on the town’s tourism website (NB the weather is no better in Le Touquet than in Ashford). Great Yarmouth has one already, but no photos easily available online. You can even get these little trains with disabled access and luggage space.
This is not just something for parks or seasides. Ashford has a great railway heritage so it is entirely fitting to have a little train for transport as well as being an attraction for tourists in its own right. The point is, if you have regular little trains, people are more likely to get on it at the outlet and therefore get a chance to see the rest of the town. People in the surrounding area who do not come into Ashford may bring their kids for the ride. As I said, the transport IS the destination.
4) Think beyond retail. Think Residents
The Council has bought Park Mall – they could just flatten it!
Seriously, given the number of empty units in the town, Poundstretchers could take its pick elsewhere in the town, same for the hairdressers, tanning salon and DJ supplies stores. Wilkinson’s could probably stay where it is, or even increase in size taking over a number of empty units elsewhere, which would be very welcome.
This would give an opportunity to either put in a hotel (necessary if tourism and promotion of Ashford as a best placed place to stay took off), or, more likely residential housing. I guess they’d propose flats but wouldn’t it be great if these could be family homes, with room to spare for gardens and a play park.
Either would help general regeneration – people in the town centre need services, places to eat out, things to do and, yes, shops to shop in. In any case, the town centre is about to get more residents with the conversion of the ugly Charter House office block to decent flats.This means entertainment in the town centre will be needed that suits younger urban residents with disposable income- that’s restaurants beyond fast food, too.
5) Or, think more radically.
The town needs rezoning because rather than an eclectic joy it feels a mess – there’s the bandstand for live music but flanked by the 99p store it doesn’t send a positive message about the town. The cafes are randomly off down Bank Street, and on the lower High Street. Relocating the cafes in a group around the bandstand would create a positive, outdoor ambience for the centre.
Given that Poundland has just taken over the 99p Store, I wonder how much longer it will stay there taking that prime central site anyway?
The tiny Tesco could relocate to the old Blockbuster or Pizza Hut buildings where it could help regenerate that end of the High Street because people actually want to go there. There are few places in the centre of Ashford where you can buy decent bread!
Demand more historically sympathetic shop signage, and fine businesses and landlords that do not maintain historic buildings.
There’s a lot of empty shops and grubby blank walls – make Ashford a town of murals. This has been done successfully in Sheffield (Tasmania, Australia), Nar Nar Goon
(Victoria, Australia, pictured below by Leon Sims on the melbourneourhome.blogspot.co.uk
website), Jonesboro (G
eorgia, USA), Angoulême in France, in Brussels, Belgium (the picture here is from the inspiringcities.org
website, by Lin Mei), and all over the world to attract visitors. Where the murals are culturally appropriate, which both of these examples are for the locations they are in, this can look amazing. It would also be a chance to reinstall the town mural in the town centre, which has been in storage since the library was rebuilt as the Gateway Plus Centre.
While we are on an arts and culture theme, Revelation St Mary is trying hard with classical music and opera, but honestly, stick on a few more 1990s bands and you fill the place and keep it in business. It’s a question of matching dispensable income and the group that has it to what you provide. Ashford’s not quite in the space of high arts at the moment.
But really, Ashford needs a USP. The town’s big thing is arts and crafts. So my most radical proposal is this: buy a Toshiko Horiuchi-MacAdam installation (big, beautiful crochet thing that kids can play on, really fun and usable indoors or outdoors, see one pictured here on the roof of MOMA Roma and another below in Japan, taken by Masaki Koizumi). Install it in the centre of Park Mall and use that as the centrepiece of an arts and crafts revival for the town. If you did this in Park Mall, you could invite Emporia, Cross’s, the sewing centre etc to move into the units around it. If kids go to play there, then adults need coffee, so that’s more units needed, and little independent craft shops attract local foods shops, and local shops… You might even attract outlet shoppers if you really go kid friendly and set up a heritage trail too. Destination play, reached by Destination transport. Now that’s a town worth a visit.
So, dear politicians of Ashford, here’s my challenge to you. Think a bit more radically about what the town centre is for in the 21st century and how we actually shop. Look forwards, not just backwards, preserve and protect heritage where we still have it, but be willing to replace mid-20th century rubbish with something new if it will attract destination stores. Remember the residents. Rezone the town, think about what makes us unique, and take a risk. After all, if any more shops go, we really will have nothing to lose.
Thank you. Feel free to get in touch if you want a bit more consultancy on the future of Ashford.