Event showcases doing business the Ashford way

Dozens of developers, commercial agents and retail experts gathered at London St Pancras to learn more about doing business in Ashford, one of the fastest growing towns between the capital and Continental Europe.

Nearly 80 delegates attending the Ashford – Locate, Innovate, Succeed and Live event listened as Ashford Borough Council Leader, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, set out a compelling case for them to get involved in Ashford’s dynamic development.

“We mean business and we want to talk to you about yours” was the key message they took from the leader of the largest borough in Kent and the man who has helped transform the town into the best place to do business in the county (according to a Locate in Kent poll).

Guests included speaker Bob Neill MP and retail giants such as Lidl, Subway, Picturehouse and Travelodge, some of whom are already involved with delivering large-scale projects in Ashford – there are currently £520m worth of developments underway in the town.

Feedback from delegates at the end of the event was hugely positive – one executive said he couldn’t believe that a local authority could adopt such a dynamic and business-savvy approach to economic development.

One delegate – Natalie Elphicke, CEO of The Housing & Finance Institute – was so impressed that she was inspired to produce a written case study for her members on ‘how to put on an excellent business engagement event’. She said:

“I think it is a really good example of excellence for others to follow.”

Council Chief Executive Tracey Kerly said:

“With projects such as the Commercial Quarter topping out this month, the opening of the £26m Ashford College and our Big 8 projects coming to fruition, this is the right time for us to reach out to existing stakeholders and new ones to share the growth successes of our town.”

“We are proud of what is being achieved, but still have many opportunities for businesses which are looking for a proactive, involved council who support that growth.

“St Pancras was the ideal location for us to hold this event, reminding guests that Ashford is just 38 minutes from central London with HS1. Our economic team was on hand to answer questions about key development sites and Frazer Thompson from the Chapel Down Group shared his Ashford success story and plans for the Curious Brewery coming to the town.

“It was a vibrant atmosphere and we hope the event has put Ashford at the forefront of many minds,” she added.

Ashford Investor Event 27 October

Investors in Ashford are participating in another event to showcase the progress being made in shaping the town’s future. Delegates attending the Ashford Investor breakfast briefing on 27 October will learn more about the rapidly accelerating pace of investment and the key role played by funding from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership.

Christian Brodie, the SELEP Chair, and Ashford MP Damian Green, Minister for the Cabinet Office and the First Secretary of State, are the keynote speakers. They will review achievements made in transforming Ashford into an economic powerhouse in Kent and look forward to identify future opportunities for growth.

The Ashford Investor Event takes place at the Civic Centre in the town.

For more details email the Economic Development Team.

So what is doing business the Ashford way?

With Government funding cuts biting deep, local authorities increasingly need to find innovative new ways to generate income to deliver services. Tracey Kerly explains how the authority is meeting those challenges and inspiring others to follow their lead…

We are a business, not a local authority. We aim to be self-sufficient by the 2018/19 financial year. We believe that bringing community assets into public ownership and managing them effectively, so they produce a net income in the long term are essential.

That’s why we’re placing a real focus on planning ahead, being enterprising, taking an astute commercial approach, innovating to deliver services and leading the field in delivering substantial numbers of quality housing.

In October 2014, the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance outlined its vision to build a local government finance system that promotes self-reliance and entrepreneurialism – key themes that we’ve long embraced.

Central government funding has been reduced by 40% in the last six years and we recognised early on that local authorities would have to adapt. To be a 21st century council you need to have a can-do attitude and that means not being content to just ‘invest to save’ but to be bold enough to go a stage further and pursue an ‘invest to earn’ policy.

Achieving a vibrant town centre is a top priority in our Five-Year Corporate Plan and we’ve adopted practices seldom seen in local government, and taken some very bold decisions, to make sure we achieve that ambition.

The shrewd acquisition of a number of valuable assets is already delivering a strong return on investment – for example, the biggest office block in Ashford, International House. Under the council’s stewardship, International House is now virtually full, the annual rental income generated has substantially improved and the value of the asset has increased.

Park Mall has been a bigger challenge. With high streets changing and local residents calling for action to revive Park Mall’s flagging fortunes, we knew it had to evolve to survive so we took the decision to buy the centre and turn it around. About a third of Park Mall’s 34 units were empty but in two years we’ve breathed new life into it. We’ve attracted a number of innovative, high-quality independent retailers and footfall is up by 7% year-on-year.

Funding construction of the Elwick Place development, which will deliver a six-screen cinema, a hotel and seven restaurants in the heart of the town, is helping to ensure we achieve our long-term goal of self-reliance. Using the income generated through rents and business rates will help us to sustain and improve the services we provide without the need for government funding. It also underlines our commitment to reinvigorate the town centre.

We are attracting inward investment by providing financial support for a number of developments, including a state-of-the-art college, which opened in September, and which will provide the skilled workforce needed to drive our economic growth.

Ashford council’s focused approach has made it a highly successful business and enables us to continue to deliver the services that are valued by residents while remaining the lowest taxing authority in Kent – a cornerstone of our 2017/18 budget.

Thanks to our foresight and ability to innovate, we’re in a strong financial position. We will continue to make bold decisions that are not only in the best interests of local tax payers but also encourage inward investors, support tourism and secure the long-term prosperity of the whole borough.

These are really exciting times for Ashford.