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.

The Anything Cupcake Mix

My toddler has a new hobby: baking. I discovered recently that he bakes once a week at nursery – he has usually eaten his biscuit or cake before he gets home so I have rarely had the chance to see the results – but he came home this week saying that he had made a red nose and digging in his bag revealed a smiley face cookie with icing and a glace cherry.

So we’ve been cooking at home too. He corrected my crumble the other day (I’d made it with flour and butter and his help but just as I was about to use it he said “no Mummy, you need to put sugar in it now then rub it some more”) and told me the timing (“it goes in d’oven from 11 to 12” – in actual fact it took about 50 minutes).

So we’ve started baking cakes. It’s great fun when he has friends round, and an easy and tasty way of spending some time together in the afternoons. To date, we’ve made peaches and cream cupcakes, and adapted the recipe to be banana and toffee, triple chocolate, summer fruits, and vanilla and raisin. Baked at 180 degrees in a fan oven for 15 minutes (for mini cake cases) or 25 minutes (in the standard size silicone cupcake cases) these are speedy and fun.

Here’s the basics:
150g sugar
150g butter
Beat these together with an electric whisk.
Beat in 1 egg.
Add 150g self-raising flour – I’ve never yet found a need to sift it.
Plus a pinch of baking powder.
Beat in 2 further eggs.
Add in your flavours. I recommend big chunks of chopped banana and bits of dark chocolate (put half a bar into a plastic bag, seal the top and bash with a rolling pin to break into suitable chunks.
Stir in so these are distributed evenly.
Spoon into cake cases – I’ve found it fills 12 larger and 12 smaller cake cases usually, but sometimes a few fewer.
Cook as described above.
These timings will give a slightly soft and springy centre.
Cool on a rack, after peeling off the silicone cases.
These can be eaten just as they are, or with a buttercream cupcake icing (butter beaten into icing sugar and cocoa powder) piled on top, or a frosting (water or and appropriate fruit sauce beaten into the icing sugar and drizzled over).


Questions of faith in adversity

Over on Facebook a friend from church had posted this video in which Martin Bashir (he of the Diana and Michael Jackson interviews in the 1990s who has all but disappeared from UK TV screens) interviews Rob Bell, pastor, author of “Velvet Elvis” and a controversial new book “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” as it is known in the USA or “Love Wins: at the heart of life’s big questions” in the UK.

Ignoring the YouTube titling (Rob Bell does not squirm), the interview asks two important questions that beg further examination.
1) How can there be a God worth worshipping if he allows the sort of suffering we’re seeing in Japan?
2) Is Rob Bell sanitising Christianity’s message for modern tastes by suggesting that there’s every chance that God’s love will win people over after death?

On the first question, every time there is a huge tragedy that we cannot understand, Christians are challenged in this way:
Is God not powerful and therefore not able to intervene to save people from the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Christchurch earthquake in NZ, or the current Japan earthquake/tsunami/ nuclear radiation combination that has so far left half a million homeless, reportedly killed tens of thousands in minutes and destabilized nuclear power plants leading both to fears of radiation poisoning and fuel and power shortages?
Or, if we believe he is powerful enough to act, does he simply not care enough to do so?

This is not an easy thing to answer, particularly in the face of so much pain and suffering. Rob Bell’s answer – that God sheds a tear when we do was succinct, but not the whole picture.
And it is an old, old question. It is set out in the story of Job in the Old Testament – if God cares why doesn’t he DO something?

At the time of Job of course, given he was a good man and could not be blamed as his friends tried to for not being good enough or faithful enough, the only answer was to have God say did you make the world? Can you pretend to understand the how or why or rhyme or reason of the universe I’ve created? Trust that I have a plan only you can’t see the whole of it.
Christians have an additional answer, given Jesus is risen. The only answer I’ve seen that makes any sense is that of course he cares, so much he put himself as Jesus through one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. While this was for all of us so that our sins don’t separate us from God, it also means that the pain of losing a loved one horribly is a firsthand experience for God too.
So we pray, and there are many miracles even in the post-tsunami horror, but the world is not as God intended it to be. If he intervened on everything everywhere all the time we’d be no better than puppets with no free will to show that we’re worthy of the amazing life and gifts that he’s given us. So its our responsibility as his people to bring the comfort and support to others that we get from Jesus paying the price for our sin.

As for the second question, Rob Bell is being presented as a blasphemer in the press. To some degree Martin Bashir is right, if Bell is presenting a message of actually it doesn’t matter what anyone has believed in or done in life, even after death you still have a chance to be won over by God’s love then that is very much in tune with the anything goes modern world.
It’s also something called universalism, the idea that eventually all humans can or will be saved by Jesus and come to harmony in God’s Kingdom.

As ever, the presentation of Bell’s book in the press is a bit simplistic, the true picture looks to be far more interesting and the book worth reading. Belief.net has a neat little article on this, as well as a fantastic blogging columnist who has reviewed the book.
I’m summarising the four key points here:
1) Eternal life starts here on earth now – bringing about all the things we believe embody God’s Kingdom around us on earth (peace, love, health, comforting);
2) Love has to be free – we can choose to love, or not to, to be with God who is love or to separate ourselves from that;
3) Jesus was not plan B, he was always God’s plan to reconcile our fractured world with his perfection;
4) In paying the price for our sin, Jesus gives us all the chance of a fresh start, good news for everyone who ever was, is and will be. The Good News is that Love Wins.

The idea that God really does love everyone is surely the best news ever.  But is the idea that everyone will eventually choose him, even if its not in this life now, just a bit patronising towards those of other faiths or none who may have chosen their beliefs after learning out about the other ideas out there?
That said, you can’t help but admire Bell’s timing.  There must be millions of people out there who hope against hope that those swept away by the tsunami who had not heard about Jesus or who had not accepted his offer will still have the chance to find him.  I’m sure the book will be popular.
Maybe I will read this book – after all I loved the stream of consciousness approach of Velvet Elvis. But I might do so with my big book of Christian theology with me.
And will still pray for the people of Japan. You can donate to the Red Cross to help Japan here , or via Save the Children here.

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?