Making Ashford a borough for business

Ashford’s successful growth for development and regeneration have been heralded in the Municipal Journal, a leading weekly magazine for local authorities, highlighting some of the key projects that are driving forward their growth as the fastest growing town between London and Continental Europe.

Tracey Kerly explains how Ashford BC is seeking out innovative ways to generate income in the pursuit of self-sufficiency

Ashford BC’s leader, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, often makes the point that the borough is a business, not a local authority. It also aims 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 are placing our 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 which the borough has long sought to embrace.

In order 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 also 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 the council’s Five-Year Corporate Plan and it has adopted practices which have seldom been seen in local government, taking bold decisions to make sure we achieve its ambitions.

The shrewd acquisition of a number of valuable assets is already delivering a strong return on investment.

Under the council’s stewardship the biggest office block in Ashford, 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. We knew it had to evolve in order to survive, so we took the decision to buy the shopping centre and turn it around. About a third of Park Mall’s 34 units were standing empty but in less than two years we’ve breathed new life into it. We’ve attracted a growing number of 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 ensure the council achieves its long-term goal of self-reliance.

Using the income generated through rents and business rates will help sustain and improve services without the need for central government funding.

The council is attracting inward investment by providing financial support for a number of major developments, such as a modern £26m college of further education, which will provide the skilled workforce needed to drive economic growth.

The council has taken a proactive approach to tackling homelessness too. Christchurch House, a rundown commercial property bought at auction for £278,000, has been transformed into quality short-stay accommodation for people to whom the council has a homeless duty, saving the taxpayer around £75,000 a year and offering fresh hope to people experiencing a traumatic period in their lives.

Other innovations include the creation of ABC Lettings, which was set up to help landlords offer properties for rent to households on local housing allowance rent levels.

While it works like a high street lettings agency, it houses people who may not otherwise be able to afford to rent in the private sector. The council has also set up ABC for Property Limited and ABC Building Consultancy to help generate commercial revenue.

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

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.

Tracey Kerly is chief executive of Ashford BC

With thanks to The Municipal Journal for permission to re-print this article