Talking about the town

Today I was lucky enough to be part of a session at Ashford Borough Council on regenerating the town centre.  I’m not going to use this blog to repeat everything said there’s indeed, although it wasn’t made clear what rules applied I’m fairly confident Chatham House rules would suffice – but attending the session got me thinking again about what I should want out of my home town.

Ashford’s situation has changed a bit in the time that we lived here.  When we arrived, Ashford’s Future existed, with grandiose schemes for making Ashford truly Best Placed in Kent.  But a change of government funding policy and the overall impact of the economic downturn has put paid to that.

About 18 months ago, I was asked to speak at a Council awayday about my thoughts on Ashford 2030- the vision for the town in the next few years.  While my thoughts remain in a similar vein now, I’m aware that nothing can really happen unless funding is available, and in a recession both the public and private sectors find this hard to come by.

Now, Ashford has achieved Portas Pilot status.  This means funding is available for some things, and a snapshot of these shows that the priority areas are thought to be making the most of the market, connecting the designer outlet centre with the town so that the town can share in the estimated 5-7 million visits made there each year, and seeking arts-based development (something the neighbouring town of Folkestone seems to be doing successfully).

So I promised a few thoughts that flowed from all this…

1) Why come into town? Who is it for?
Today, rightly, the focus was on footfall. From my perspective, wrongly, it focused solely on footfall in the town centre rather than looking at the circumstances affecting that…a town centre accompanied by an outlet centre, an out of town park with restaurants and the cinema, ringed by the third biggest Sainsbury’s in the country, two Tesco extras, a Waitrose, an Asda… These things affect the High Street as much as what is actually here or not here because all of these things can be described as coming to Ashford but they are not complementary and do not feed each other.
By ignoring these factors, the towns similar to Ashford information generated felt wrong – it did not seen to bring up those with similar challenges (Swindon, Maidenhead, that sort of place) – just those with similar footfall.

More interesting is the demographics, information also potentially accessible via the 2011 census. Folkestone may well be prospering by matching its retail to its demographic- Primark, TK maxx, Peacocks. Ashford, it seems has a large, affluent, family-based group of consumers who are not being sufficiently catered for in the town. While I might feel that the fashion offering is generally either too young or too old for me, it seems the silver surfer generation feel that it is not for them either. And as the two social groups with most disposable income, this is not a healthy situation for a town.

Tenterden has many of the more upmarket retailers and those stores have indicated before that with a store there and another in Canterbury, they wouldn’t also be looking to have one in Ashford. So simply increasing market share of available consumers is not a simple matter.

Everyone always talks about pop up shops, but while they are OK if you already have regular shoppers, I can’t see how they attract new visitors or, more importantly, attract long term investment in an area. Similarly the trend for street food has not yet reached Ashford, but while street food vendors have lower overheads than hospitaIity units in permanent buildings,that lack of permanency means no long term legacy when they decide to move on.

And as for hospitality in Ashford, independents seem to keep disappearing but while there are pubs and coffee shops, I’ve found little for the mums and kids beyond fast food. I like the occasional McDonalds as much as the next woman, but what if you want to have hummus in preference to chicken nuggets?
The “nice” restaurants are outside the town centre, in Kennington, Tenterden, Mersham-le-hatch, Mersham, Bodsham… But if you’ve got to travel anyway (all of these are car journeys from Ashford) it is also in Wye, Canterbury and Folkestone’s regenerated harbour – and all of those are on the same high-speed train line as Ashford. Destination food that might lead me to spend time in the place I get it from. That’s one thing Ashford is really missing.

2) Transport: a mixed blessing
In identifying competitor towns, the tendency is always to think local. Canterbury, Folkestone, Maidstone, and slightly further afield Sevenoaks and Tonbridge Wells might seem like the natural alternatives, but for a day out shopping many Ashfordians head to Bluewater (40 minutes by car, the same by train-and-bus combo), or to London.
While there have always been commuters in Ashford, the arrival of a 38 minute high-speed link to Stratford and St Pancras International means an influx of relatively affluent families looking to spend London wages in cheaper and more rural surroundings. Season tickets at over £6000 a year are such a chunk of income that many look to get their money’s worth. So weekend trips are effectively “free” and shopping at Westfield Stratford is only half an hour away with a massive food court.
Also, without retail at the station in Ashford, I often shop on the way home from London so my wages are gained by M&S food hall at St Pancras rather than in my home town. This is daft.

The problem though is also more local. I always laugh when monorails are mentioned, remembering the conman in The Simpsons, but seriously the 50p bus ride between the outlet and the town is not doing much to encourage interchange and a fifteen minute walk under a damp railway bridge is not really going to cut it either. So feature transportation might be a worthwhile investment – something that means the kids pester to be allowed to do it (a bus ride to the hospital yesterday was described by my son as a fun day out so this is not as ridiculous as it may initially sound). And a monorail might well do just that.

3) On foot, on street parking or online?
If I need something quickly, I’ll pop into town. Particularly if I have to have something in my hand that day.
But it depends what I want. So while apparently there’s no reason why a town Ashford’s size should be sustain a music store, if there’s no hmv there anymore for that last minute birthday present, I don’t go elsewhere, I hop onto Amazon and get it delivered to the recipient’s door. Even if it does mean I won’t have it immediately.
If the small retail units in town mean that what I need (maternity clothes, big bras) are not stocked, then I’ll go online. Some retailers in town now offer to do this for me (hats off to Debenhams) which at least guarantees them the sale and I’m no worse off as delivery to home is free and only takes the same time as ordering it from their website at home would take.
Internet shopping is after all simply a glorified form of mail order, but with access to a range of products no high street could reasonably be expected to stock. But it is a threat to the high street.
I don’t think about driving into Ashford – I live within five minutes of one part of the town centre, but many people cite parking charges as prohibitively high. The lesson from Swindon seems to be to ignore the clamour to raise revenue through high parking charges and recognise that an unattractive offer becomes even less attractive if you are charged excessively to experience it.

4) Ashford is a European town
When we look for ideas we so often look to America. Some of the idea as concerning alternative rent and rate models are certainly US in origin. But the nearest non-London provisional centre to Ashford isn’t Southampton (as the Meridian TV region would have us believe). It is Lille. And getting there takes less time than you might think from Ashford, given our transport links.
No self-respecting French town would dream of talking itself down. There are syndicates d’initiative everywhere, and everywhere boosts its heritage and local produce.
Ashford is uniquely placed to take a similar approach. We should embrace the railway heritage, mediaeval buildings, 760 year market charter…
We should have an artisan farmers’ market selling local produce – the sort of thing the sadly departed Rachel’s deli sold and Evegate has a bit of. Quality is key if you want to attract regular shoppers.

The classic problem with Ashford is that to get it right it would be better not to be starting from here. There is a leisure park where the commercial sector should be, empty buildings and a planned commercial quarter where that leisure park should have been linking the station to the town. A new much welcome and needed John Lewis at home is going into a greenfield site outside the town rather than the vacant space between the town centre and the railway.
There’s so much space that could be used for retail but hard to know which stores are intending to fill them. And Ashford has 50% more occupation of retail by the charity sector than ought to be expected in a medium town with this population.
But we are where we are.
I think we are finally asking the right questions.
But this is a complex problem, and we need to make sure we are not reaching for simple answers just because they don’t cost as much as really investigating what can done and taking some calculated risks.
Who knows, it could make this medium sized market town really a lovely place to live.