One of the fixtures on the Ashford Business Calendar these days is the Growth of Ashford Conference set up by Wilkins Kennedy. This year’s was held at the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, and it was very cheering to see extra chairs being brought in before the start to meet the demand. Well over a hundred people were registered.
What is impressive the last few years is not just the scale of growth which this conference marks, but the economic background against which Ashford has grown. Around the world the difficulties caused by the 2008 financial crash were as challenging as any since the 1930s, and yet as the British economy has gone through pain to get our finances back into a stable place, Ashford has just steamed ahead.
We are all familiar with the developments which have come to fruition, because many of them are visible at the heart of the town. The new Ashford College, the Commercial Quarter office building, the cinema, the Curious brewery, the doubling in size of the McArthur Glen Outlet, all testify to the surge of energy which we are now seeing.
My speech at the Conference concentrated on the partnership working which I am convinced has been at the heart of this success. The Borough Council inevitably lies at the centre of the developments, but it cannot do it without the support of Kent County Council, Homes England, Highways England, the national Government at times, and of course the private sector investors themselves. This partnership has now become a habitual way of working in Ashford, and it is the only way to cope with the inevitable hurdles and crises that lie in the way of a big project.
Apart from some familiar facts and figures, I was struck by the thought that there are £2million worth of cranes currently towering over building work in Ashford, and that the outlet centre, with 75 stores, is managing an equivalent performance as other centres with 120 stores.
Of course there is much more to do, and we heard some quite sobering facts about the low percentage of people, especially from the rural areas around Ashford, who think that the entertainment and leisure facilities in the town are satisfactory. This is the challenge for the next couple of years, as the cinema opens with new restaurants, and of course the Curious Brewery itself. But I am looking forward to next year’s Conference, to celebrate more successful changes.