Recognition for council’s entrepreneurial streak

Ashford Borough Council has been shortlisted in the prestigious 2018 LGC Awards, which are the biggest awards in the public sector.

The Kent council has made the cut in both the entrepreneurial council of the year category, as well as the big one, the overall council of the year.

Chief Executive Tracey Kerly said:

“We’re very happy to be shortlisted for the two categories we entered. We have a strong direction as an authority, which comes from our political leadership and our officers who work incredibly hard with both ambition and creativity to deliver results for the residents of Ashford.”

It is the council’s response to cuts in public expenditure that are perhaps most eye-catching. It has long-since taken the view that the period of cutting services is over. It now invests in assets to generate income streams and in its employees to oversee commercial agreements.

The council embraces change and is seeking to be self-sufficient by 2018-19. It has accepted growth by granting permission for the 5,750 homes at Chilmington Green, Ashford’s largest ever planning application.

It shrewdly acquired International House (Ashford’s largest office block), which is delivering a 12.6% return on investment. Ellingham industrial estate is returning 12.3%, among other assets.

A wholly-owned council property company was created, acquiring then letting properties. In 2016-17 this contributed £70,000 to the General Fund.

Here are some of the other points that have made Ashford stand out from its peers across the country:

  • With the council the catalyst, Ashford is witnessing inward investment on an unprecedented scale – £668m across the borough, of which £520m is within Ashford town centre
  • To address the needs of an ageing population, it has spent £16m on a dementia-friendly redevelopment of its sheltered housing scheme at Farrow Court
  • Ashford was the first council in the south east to be classed ‘Housing Business Ready’, recognising its innovation in delivering affordable housing
  • It has created ABC Lettings, a management service for landlords, enabling the council to increase the resilience of its own stock
  • The council brought responsibility for grounds maintenance back in-house in October 2016 under the Aspire Landscape Management branding
  • Ashford remains the top recycling district council in Kent, posting a recycling rate of 55%
  • Ashford has demonstrated community leadership, leading the south east response to resettling Syrian refugees as part of the national government’s resettlement programme, resettling up to 50 families over the next five-years
  • Stimulating confidence in the local economy has seen Ashford’s vacancy rate for empty shops drop to an all-time low of 7.9%, below the national average
  • Praised by Mary Portas, is the UK’s only digital high street and creates interest in the town centre via its social media pages
  • The council bought Park Mall shopping centre in 2015 when one third of the 33 shops were empty. Under its management only one unit remains vacant and footfall has increased by 8% on 2016 figures
  • The ‘District Deal’, signed in 2016 by Ashford Borough and Kent County Council’s leaders, is a statement of intent on how the authorities can work together. It is the only agreement of its kind in Kent and places creativity and quality at the heart of delivering shared goals
  • Working with the South East Local Enterprise Partnership it has secured funding to provide a signalling solution at Ashford International Station so Eurostar’s next generation trains can stop there and funding for J10a, a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project

The borough council funding the construction of the town-centre cinema, hotel and restaurant complex at Elwick Place is “ground-breaking” according to investors Stanhope plc.

In bringing forward the first phase of development at the Commercial Quarter, an important business hub for the south east adjacent to Ashford International Station, the council has underwritten the cost of two floors of the 80,000 sq ft office block – the first to be built in Ashford in decades – constructed by Quinn Estates and George Wilson Holdings.

The council has developed the ‘AshfordFor’ inward investment campaign where investors and business owners are storytellers, using peer-to-peer marketing to share real-life success stories with target stakeholders.

Following representation from the council on its commitment to delivering fibre-to-the-premise (a significant advance on ‘fibre-to-the-cabinet’) in its local plan, national policy was shaped when the February 2017 Housing white paper included the provision of super-fast broadband for new housing developments.

Cllr Gerry Clarkson, Leader of Ashford Borough Council, said:

“It’s pleasing to receive acknowledgement of this kind and we certainly have much to be proud of. However, this is just a milestone on our onward journey towards being a commercial, self-sufficient organisation. We are never complacent and still have much to do. We never lose sight of the fact that we are people serving people.

“Everything we are striving to achieve has at its heart our residents and the services we provide across the whole of our borough. Our submissions showed our innovation, professionalism and compassion and I hope that this resonates with our residents as we deliver the services that matter to them on a daily basis.”