BFF wanted

“You and me
We used to be together
Everyday together always
I really feel
That I’m losing my best friend
I can’t believe
This could be the end…”

The song, Don’t Speak by No Doubt, is about the breakup of a relationship. It’s about the end of love. When we think of love, we always think of sex, romantic love, or possibly family love. But the loss of friendship hurts too.

Do you have a BFF? Most people do, if you believe what you see in TV and read about in magazines.

I love my friends. I don’t see enough of my friends. Distance, and time due to childcare are mainly to blame. But I realised that, with the exception of my husband, no one would – if asked – name me as their best friend.
Those competitions? Win one for you and one for your best friend? Most of my friends would be surprised if I won the second one for them. They’d be touched but also embarrassed.
Oh.
Do I have that role in her life? She doesn’t in mine.

I have a good friend I see every day. She’s probably the best friend I have at the moment, although I know that the BFF spot is already taken in her life. We have much in common but enough difference to be interesting. She’s fun to talk with, hugely intelligent, entertaining, caring, endlessly kind. Now her  job has moved and within three months, they will have moved across the country.

I feel like I’m in mourning.
Oh, we’ll stay in touch, I have no doubt about that.
But it won’t be the same as the immediacy, the interweaving in each other’s lives that we have right now. I’ll help and support my friend through everything she needs over the next few months and beyond as best I can, just as we have done for each other over the last months and years.

But I think everyone needs friends close to them.
The internet is amazing, it keeps friendships alive, but you also need people close by that love you and care for you. You need to be able to help each other out in practical and not just emotional ways.

Part of me just wants to curl into a ball and cry. I need to shake myself out of it, go out and be me just as well as I can and hope that I’m lucky enough to find another friendship that feels as happy and easy as this one.
Part of the trouble is that by your 30s, finding friends is so often about breaking into long established friendship circles. NCT and school gates can help, but you have to want to do it and for others to be responsive to your overtures.

So, good friend wanted.
BFF wanted.
I can promise laughs, support, intellectual conversation and a fascination with the world. And cakes. And wine. And a need to exercise.
WLTM similar.

Morpurgo, Music and the Mozart Question

IMG_1935How do you explain the holocaust to children? If you are going to try, the good news is you can do it as engagingly and sensitively as Michael Morpurgo does in his current stage show “The Mozart Question”.

In a rare treat, the former children’s laureate was in Ashford, Kent today at Revelation St Mary‘s (the town centre church which is a stunning arts venue in its spare time). Accompanied by Alison Reid, violin soloist Daniel Pioro and the Storyteller Ensemble string quartet, Morpurgo tells his short story with drama and humanity.

The Mozart Question is NOT in the Da Vinci Code mould, using a famous historical name to build an improbable and inexpertly written thriller.
Instead it is the fictional story of Paulo Levi, a fifty year old virtuoso violinist who is interviewed at short notice by a cub reporter who has heard him perform and knows only that she must not ask the Mozart question.
Using well known classical violin music (which was slightly different from the selection featured on the 2012 CD of the show) to tell the tale, with Pioro stepping into the roles of both Paulo and his father.
The music left my 7 year old totally unable to sit still (sorry if you were there and thought he was fidgeting, he finds it easier to listen to music while moving I found out today!) His absolute favourite’s were Monti’s Czardas and Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – super fast violins-  and something he referred to as a Barber’s Shop Quartet. I explained that this last one is actually completely different music, but it’s a good term to use without totally giving away a nice surprise scene.

There were some lovely moments of humour, real poignancy and Morpurgo’s love of both language and music shines despite the potentially difficult material about the role of orchestras in Nazi extermination camps. I managed not to cry. But this was a performance primarily for children, so I asked my son to name his favourite bits:
– “I liked the story. It was really sad and happy at the same time”;
– “the fast music was really good. I played air violin when it came on”;
– “Mummy bought me the book, so I could read along a bit. The pictures in the book helped me listen a bit more”;
– “I was a bit scared about going to meet the author, but he was really nice and shook my hand”;
– “I wasn’t completely sure what The Mozart Question actually was, but I think there were three really… why did that music calm people down when they were going to die? Does that bad thing happening with the music make the music bad to listen to? And was his daddy silly to not want to hear it?” (These three questions emerged over the hour after we saw the show).
Once home, it was also the perfect opportunity to explain about Naziism and what happened to Jewish people, gay people, disabled people and more who didn’t fit in with that world view. He was a bit worried about using the shower tonight, a bit sad, and didn’t think anyone should decide that four million people should be killed. Then he decided to play Star Wars figures. It’ll be interesting to listen in and see if those games change as a result.

As always when taking a child to a performance, you have to be relaxed about how they are. At the beginning, my seven year old said loudly “Which one is he?” I replied that the author was the one in the red shirt. “Oh. He’s really old, isn’t he?” says my son.
He asked repeatedly why one violinist wasn’t playing at first (this became clear five minutes later), and later, during a quiet moment e asked why one spotlight wasn’t on.
But for a 75 minute performance without interval, I was really impressed that he basically listened, even if he squirmed.

At seven, my son reads confidently but has so far only read Morpurgo’s “Kaspar, Prince of Cats”. He was inspired with today’s performance though, so I expect we’ll have the full library soon.
Having bought the book that was performed, we hoped to get it autographed but it turns out Morpurgo is a fellow sufferer of RSI. Instead, he handed out signed book plates and came around chatting to everyone and shaking hands. What a nice man!
I mentioned how much my wriggling child had loved the music and Morpurgo asked if he learned an instrument.
“Not yet.”
“I think you will very soon,” says the author.
When we got home, my son announced he wants to learn the violin at school next year.
And he wants to play the Monti.
That alone was worth the entrance price.

Ashford town centre: revival

Dear local politicians – we have a problem with Ashford Town Centre. It doesn’t work. Here’s why, and what to do about it…

ashford Adam Coulton

The Problems

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.

The solutions

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…

3) So…

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…

CnstSent07…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…

petit_train2_560

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.
01_184034176_31b16621d320by20lin20mei
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 (GPicture 018eorgia, 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.
harmonic-motion
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.
crochet7
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.

What plans for Ashford’s future now?

© Copyright Adam Colton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

What’s missing?

  • 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?

Finding solutions
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.

Think community
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.

Lighting up Ashford for the future

 

(image of International House from www.luxmagazine.co.uk’s article on the light installation)

As we walked out of the station at Ashford International last week, there was a TV camera focused on an office block opposite the station entrance.
The office block in question – International House- has a multi-coloured light display on it.  We had no idea why, but it is rather pretty – as you whizz into Ashford at high speed, the display catches your attention.

Watching the local news later, all was revealed: you can watch the item here.  Essentially SEEDA (the South East of England Development Agency, shortly to be got rid of) owns the building and spent £200,000 setting up the art installation.  The building is now full, bringing jobs to this area were they are badly needed.

While not exactly the Angel of the North, this is a striking piece of urban art.
It is also worth noting that this is a dark and windy corner of Ashford, an ugly office block between a car park and the station. Station areas are notoriously ugly, so bringing interest and excitement to an otherwise unremarkable building is a clever idea. If it can be solar powered lighting – it isn’t but could it be? – that would be for the best too.

It turns out that the issue was made public by the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Now don’t get me wrong – there are probably many things done by local government organisations in Kent that deserve close scrutiny, particularly in straitened financial circumstances.
But it looks like this artwork is an investment in Ashford’s future, and with the organisation Ashford’s Future being disbanded at the end of March 2011 (a few people based in Ashford Borough Council simply will not be able to give the same impetus or resource to strategic planning that this innovative public/private organisation tried to) anything that can attract investment to Ashford has got to be a good thing.   Employment is a sensitive issue in Kent with Pfizer closing, and Ashford a designated growth area in desperate need of more major employers.
While the coverage in The Mirror that gets a mention on the TPA website has a “they should’ve spent the money on nurses and doctors” comment, it is noticeable that the comments from the locals on the BBC piece seem to have been a bit more nuanced.  And ultimately the more positive comments are coming from people who are taxpayers too.
I just wonder whether this perhaps wasn’t the best target for the TPA?  What if Ashford’s taxpayers thought a bit of public spending was an investment in them as well as quite pretty?