Taking the temperature of local business is always interesting and important, and at this delicate time for the national economy it is particularly relevant. So one of my regular business breakfasts organised by the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce was very timely last Friday.
As things turned out most of the topics which concerned people were local rather than national. Inevitably in the current circumstances traffic issues dominated. On top of the short term disruption caused by the co-incidence of several large-scale projects such as Junction 10A and the works on the Outlet Centre, there was great interest in the alternatives to Operation Stack.
At the same time there was nervousness about the delay in plans to turn part of the A28 into a dual carriageway. Everyone agrees that this will be necessary to cope with the additional homes at Chilmington Green, and that it will need to happen at a fairly early stage of that project.
The general conclusion was that we will have to put up with some short-term pain for the long-term gains that these big new projects will provide, but that the underlying issue of lorry parking needs a proper solution. From the individual experiences of some of the businesses present it is clear that enforcement action against lorries parked overnight in the business parks does have an effect. Indeed at a meeting in the Dover district over the weekend there was some jealousy that enforcement against illegal lorry parking happens in Ashford but not in Dover.
As for other key issues, one was the difficulty of obtaining new young workers with the appropriate technology skills. The obvious solution for this is more courses on these subjects at Ashford College, so we discussed how best to translate this need into a demand that the College can meet. One of the barriers is that 85% of Ashford firms are micro businesses, so it can be very difficult for them to find a forum in which to make their voice heard. A number of people around the table, including the Chamber itself, will now work on making this happen.
So far Ashford’s economy has been resilient in the face of the slowing down of the national economy. Realistically, we have to admit that many of the projects which are essential for this resilience are the ones causing short-term difficulties. As ever, there are two sides to the story.