Along with councillors and officers from Ashford Borough Council I had an interesting morning showing the Minister for Town Centres, Jake Berry, around some of our significant changes.
It was of course mostly a pleasure being able to point to shops open when they were empty a year ago, and buildings either newly finished or about to be opened. But it was also instructive to hear his reaction when he compared Ashford to other similar towns around the country.
Inevitably, doing the job he does, he has interesting views about how town centres can thrive given the many social changes that are conspiring against them. We long ago stopped going to the town centre to buy our food, and now that so much clothing is bought online another staple of the old town centre has gone. These are now just facts of life, and complaining about them is pointless.
Mr Berry suggests a range of answers, and I am glad to say that they are all covered by the policies for Ashford town centre. The first is that shops must be providing something a little different, rather than a centre relying on the national chains. The second is that there has to be some entertainment destinations. The third is that a return to living in town centres is part of the solution to maintaining footfall.
With local shops in Park Mall, a multi-screen cinema about to open, and hundreds of new flats and houses being built near the town centre, Ashford is having a go at meeting all these challenges. Already the look of much of the centre has changed radically in the past two years.
Over the next two years it will change again and most importantly expand across the shared space. We will then have a bigger and better town centre to attract more visitors.