Local Plan to 2030 - Publication Draft

Delivering a Sustainable Town Centre

3.130 Ashford town centre is the key focus for shopping and services in the borough and will play an increasingly important role at the heart of the Borough’s economy. The town centre is the most accessible location in the Borough and, with an attractive historic core, is a pleasant place to visit.  It is an important shopping centre, especially for people living in the urban area, but it competes with centres such as Canterbury, Maidstone and Bluewater.  Many Borough residents living outside the town visit less frequently and do their ‘comparison’ shopping (clothes and one-off purchases) elsewhere. The town centre needs to respond to this diversion of ‘spending power’ by strengthening its role and its own special offer and identity.  

3.131 With fast rail access not just to and from London but also to the continent, the town centre is well placed to cater for a growing office market. In addition, the availability of substantial space in the form of vacant or underused brownfield sites near to the stations present opportunities for development and change that is unique when compared to other south east of England locations.

3.132 However current market confidence remains cautious with ‘pioneer investors’ inevitably carrying higher initial risk. This position is reflected in the viability evidence that supports this Local Plan which shows that schemes are highly sensitive to change and can become unviable very quickly. The Local Plan responds to these sensitivities by adopting a flexible policy approach that is not overly prescriptive and the level of requirements sought from development here.    

3.133 That said, Ashford town centre is very much on the cusp of a major transition with an emerging office market and growing market interest in investment in other sectors such as leisure, buy to rent apartment schemes. This is reflected in recent planning applications and current ongoing discussions with developers around a number of schemes on important sites within the town centre. It is therefore crucial that the Local Plan's emergence does not undermine these discussions or current interest. 

3.134 Where these schemes are expected to contribute to the Borough's overall housing numbers, the sites are referred to in the housing trajectory that supports this Plan (Appendix 5). For the non residential development requirements the contributions from these schemes are reflected in Policy SP3 and SP4 of this Local Plan.

Vision

3.135 A thriving town centre is crucial for the people who use it day to day but also, more generally, to make it a more attractive destination for residents of the wider area and for tourists. The more people that use the town centre the more successful it will be.  As town centres change in response to the internet and the changing retail market, so the town centre needs reshaping to provide not just for essential daily needs, but also to create a mix of more quirky, varied and specialist shopping and entertainment opportunities. This will attract people in from a wider area, over a longer part of the day and evening.  

3.136 The strongest town centres have an ‘all day economy’ – busy lunchtimes as a large local workforce takes a break and lively evenings after work and as people come back to the town centre for specific attractions such as the cinema and to eat and drink. Healthy town centres also tend to have a significant resident population which helps the place feel active at all times and brings more spending to town centre businesses. 

3.137 So the Council’s vision is of a town centre that offers a wide and entertaining mix of activity throughout the day and evening; with a strengthening ‘leisure shopping’ offer including a growing mix of interesting, independent retailers; and a fast growing resident and working population that brings more activity and spending power to the town.  

3.138 Helping to drive delivery of that vision Ashford also has a unique opportunity. High speed rail services give access to and from London in 38 minutes and this, coupled with the potential for an expanding range of rail services to the continent, places Ashford town centre in a very special position. Combining the three key factors of fast travel times, relatively low average house prices and the quality of life offered in the area, Ashford is now in a very competitive position in south east England  to attract inward investment and jobs growth.  

3.139 The supply of readily available land in the town centre for growth – especially in the area between the stations and the shopping core is the final, critical ingredient. The town has the opportunity to move from a relatively small provincial office market to a centre of much higher ranking by creating a high quality business centre, as an integral part of a stronger town centre. 

3.140 In short, the town centre will be a key motor for Ashford’s growth in the coming years. Jobs in the new Commercial Quarter will tend to be at higher skill levels and provide opportunities both for the local workforce and for some of those people currently commuting who would like to work closer to home.  As this town centre office sector grows, a range of secondary services will be needed to support new office businesses – many sectors of the Ashford economy will benefit.  More jobs in the town centre will bring more spending power for the day and evening economy and help to drive a better range of opportunities to eat and drink, shop and enjoy leisure time.

3.141 There are several very important themes that will guide the Council’s approach as the town centre evolves. 

3.142 Quality place-making: The Council is wedded to delivering quality places, spaces and buildings for people to enjoy in the town centre.  The attractive medieval core of the existing centre, including over 100 listed buildings and the Conservation Area, needs protecting but alongside this a harmonious blend of new development is needed with bustling streets and attractive public spaces.  By continuing to demand high design standards this not only brings pleasure to town centre users but it helps to encourage investor confidence in the town and the emerging Commercial Quarter office market and will help to attract further investment.

3.143 Design quality means not just the way a building looks but the contribution the scheme makes as a whole – how it animates the street by including active uses on ground floors; how the spaces around the buildings work and link into the wider townscape; and how special care is taken to create character at key junctions, corner plots and focal points in important views. The Council will continue to use its independent Design Panel to help assess the all round quality of town centre schemes.

3.144 A vibrant town centre: National Planning Policy requires local planning authorities to plan to meet the needs of main town centre uses in full, adopting a ‘town centre’ first approach to the provision of new shopping and leisure development. A Retail and Leisure Needs Assessment (2015) has been carried out which shows that the quantitative need for new retail floorspace in the town centre over the plan period is low. The Study found an imbalance between town centre and out of town food shopping and identifies the potential for additional food shopping space in the town centre to help address this.

3.145 Shoppers today are tending towards more varied ‘leisure shopping’ in good quality environments with a range of other activities – eating, drinking, entertainments - on offer. Strong town centre management is key to success and this includes the Council’s direct influence as landlord of the Park Mall shopping centre.

3.146 Ashford, like strong town centres elsewhere, needs to complement traditional strong Saturday retail trading with an ‘all day economy’ – busy lunchtimes as a large local workforce takes a break, and lively evenings after work and as people come back to the town centre for specific attractions such as the proposed cinema and to eat and drink.

3.147 A place to live in: The town centre’s resident population is growing rapidly. This growth is likely to continue as people are attracted by competitive prices, an improving town centre with an easy walk to the stations and quick access to London. There are sites available which can provide for significant residential development. One residential market that may emerge strongly is institutionally funded apartments in the private rented sector.  This sort of development would help to increase the range of housing choices available; it can be built to generous space standards but at a relatively high density typical of a town centre; and will therefore lead to a substantial increase in town centre residents. 

3.148 More residents brings more support for the shops, services and entertainments provided in the town centre and helps to animate the town day and evening. Coupled with the growing number of office jobs in the Commercial Quarter and the student numbers at Ashford College this will create a significant and sustained impetus for town centre regeneration. 

3.149 A place to work: The Commercial Quarter has the space to create an important new office centre in south east England.  It sits alongside the stations and occupiers will benefit from the high speed domestic and international train services.  The area can meet the demands of an emerging office market within an overall masterplan designed to create a fine new place, characterised by excellent quality treatment of the public realm.  As a major landowner the Council is well placed both to drive delivery in this area and to set and achieve high design and place-making standards.

3.150 A range of supporting services will be needed as this Quarter grows - these will include specialist financial, IT, marketing and legal services as well as catering, buildings maintenance and office supplies.   This will benefit town centre businesses as well as firms in the wider Ashford economy.

3.151 Local skills to match opportunities: As the office sector expands a growing workforce with a wider range of skills will be needed providing excellent career opportunities for local people. The construction of Ashford College in the heart of the town centre, offering increased choice for local students in both further and higher education, is a crucial component of the wider economic development of the Borough as a whole. The Council will continue to work with the Hadlow Group both to help shape the curriculum to meet emerging needs and to expand the presence in the town.

3.152 Movement and parking: A careful balance needs to be struck between providing town centre parking to serve the retail, leisure and commercial facilities on offer balanced with an awareness that there is finite road capacity in the town centre.   Successful towns attract traffic and as the economy strengthens this issue will become more important.  In the early years a relatively high level of parking provision is likely to be sought by investors to help attract tenants – especially for new offices.  As the market strengthens parking on site to support future schemes may need to be provided at a lower ratio to make sure that the available road space is managed effectively, including making enough provision for shoppers and residents needs.

3.153 Much has been achieved to make the town a pleasant place for people on foot, including the pedestrianised centre, the Elwick Road shared space and other street improvements (e.g. to West Street). As a result it is easier for pedestrians to walk to the town centre ands to enjoy it once there.  The Council will continue this approach by making sure that developments in the town centre play their part to improve the pedestrian environment and the attractiveness of the town centre as a whole. 

3.154 A deliverable strategy: The opportunities in the town centre are considerable and there is growing market interest. Evidence indicates, however, that many schemes remain only marginally viable and the comparatively high build costs needed to deliver a quality product are not yet reflected in returns from development. Pioneer investments in relatively untested sectors of the Ashford town centre market – e.g. new town centre offices; private rented apartments; leisure projects – may therefore be unable to support the full range of normal developer contributions set out elsewhere in this Plan.  Where this is the case, viability assessments will be needed to test these issues with a realistic approach being taken that reflects the risks investors are taking and the need to help stimulate investor confidence.  Once confidence has been created further investments are likely to flow that will benefit the town centre and Borough as a whole. 

3.155 Experience of viability assessment in the town centre shows that residential schemes are, as yet, generally unable to meet the range of developer contributions to infrastructure that is needed, including affordable housing. The Council has a track record of working with developers to minimise these costs to avoid inhibiting regeneration in the town centre, in line with the National Planning Policy Framework.  Private rented sector apartment schemes will bring a new product to the choice of homes on offer in the town, help broaden the market and are supported by national planning policy.   In the light of this, the Council recognises that it may be inappropriate to meet the policy requirement for affordable housing on town centre housing sites where viability is an issue, as set out in policy HOU1.  

3.156 As the Council is a major landowner in the town centre – including the Park Mall shopping centre; Vicarage Lane car park and a substantial part of the Commercial Quarter – it is able to help deliver well planned and high quality development. Over the duration of the Plan this can make a huge contribution to the regeneration of the town centre.

3.157 The Town Centre policy below picks up these themes – it is supported by a specific site policy for the Commercial Quarter (see site policy S1). The general policy approach is deliberately flexible to accommodate a range of potential uses in the town centre that help to meet the vision and approach set out above.  In an emerging market a degree of pragmatism is essential to be able to respond to changing market demands.  National planning policy supports a market-aware approach of this sort. 

 

SP5 - Ashford Town Centre

Proposals coming forward in Ashford town centre (as shown on the policies map), will be supported in principle where they help to deliver the vision set out above and where they promote high quality design that is appropriate to their location. A range of principal uses may be acceptable including retail, offices, leisure, residential and hotel. Other complementary uses may include, voluntary and community uses and health facilities. Proposals in the town centre will need to comply with sequential test requirements set out in policy EMP9 . 

Proposals will be assessed against the following criteria:

  1. All schemes will need to demonstrate a quality of design that makes a significant contribution to improving the character of the town centre. This includes not just the buildings proposed but the spaces around them and links to the wider public realm. Mixed use developments are encouraged and street frontages of buildings should include active uses that help bring a sense of vitality to the street scene. New development proposals on major and/ or prominent sites will be expected to have been subject to public exhibition/ consultation and be subject to review by the independent Ashford Design Panel
  2. Residential development in the town centre is encouraged, for example, making use of space above shops but the opportunity also exists to provide a range of types of home, including the potential for serviced private rented apartment schemes.
  3. Further expansion of further and higher education facilities at the Kent College complex will be supported subject to design and other site-specific considerations.  
  4. A balanced approach to office parking needs will be taken in order to help stimulate early investment in the town centre, whilst considering long term impacts on road capacity and the needs of shoppers, residents and other users. As the market strengthens and further developments come forward this approach is likely to be subject to formal review.
  5. Where a development proposal comes forward that clearly demonstrates it would meet the vision and design quality set for the town centre but is of marginal viability, the Council (taking specialist advice) will explore a flexible approach to seek to reduce the costs of contributions to infrastructure and affordable housing, provided the resulting proposal does not create a serious and unacceptable level of impact.