Advertisement

It’s not risky business if you apply the Ashford model

When I read Kevin Muldoon-Smith’s article – Risky business: how cutbacks are leading local authorities into ‘exotic waters – I was eager to share the experiences we’ve had in Ashford in adopting a more commercially-savvy approach. Good asset management, planning ahead and investing in long-term assets that produce a net income are essential.

Last October, the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance outlined its vision to build a local government finance system that promotes self-reliance and entrepreneurialism – key themes that we’ve long embraced.

Ashford Borough Council is a highly successful business and we punch well above our weight on the national and international stage. For example, our model for growth is on the chancellor’s radar, which is why I was invited to make a presentation to Treasury officials about The AshFORd model: A blueprint for integrated growth. When we exhibited at the MIPIM UK event in London last autumn we were holding our own against councils with huge marketing budgets like the City of London, Manchester and Cardiff.

We have major development projects underway, overseen by a strategic board, and we invite partners from the private sector to join us for one reason only – to help us deliver. It’s not a talking shop. It’s about getting shovels in the ground as quickly as possible. This hard-nosed approach is one of the reasons why Ashford topped a poll as the best business destination in Kent in August 2014. Investment agency Locate in Kent asked developers, investors and businesses for their views and Ashford’s connectivity – our 38-minute high-speed rail link to London and Eurostar services to France and Belgium are unrivalled – and business-friendly local authority were ranked top.

‘But this sharp business focus doesn’t mean our residents are ignored and local services suffer. We continue to boast the lowest council tax in Kent while providing cost-effective services, for example, and we’re now officially the most improved recycling area in the country.’

We’re not afraid to make bold decisions – in the past 18 months we’ve bought the biggest office block in Ashford for £7.8m and acquired a shopping centre. The 12-storey International House occupies a plum site alongside the international station. Under our stewardship, we’ve increased income and the value of the asset by maximising the space we can rent. As a result, International House is now virtually full and annual rental income has substantially improved.

Perhaps an even bigger challenge is our acquisition of Park Mall shopping centre. Around a third of Park Mall’s 34 units stand empty but we’re breathing new life into the site, with the first new tenant announced and more in the pipeline. Buying Park Mall creates an asset and income stream and tallies with our aim to reinvigorate the town centre. High streets are changing and we must evolve to survive and prosper.

Of course every successful business relies on a highly-motivated and skilled workforce and this where Ashford leads the way. Despite pressure on budgets, we have invested in our people. From April 2015, staff are paid a minimum of £8 per hour and apprentices get 15 pence per hour above the national minimum wage. Employees are encouraged to learn languages, while ABC’s graduate work placement scheme for local people provides a stepping stone to a permanent job.

But this sharp business focus doesn’t mean our residents are ignored and local services suffer. We continue to boast the lowest council tax in Kent while providing cost-effective services, for example, and we’re now officially the most improved recycling area in the country.

The authority continues to pursue large-scale development projects that will unlock major opportunities, deliver jobs, housing, retail and cultural facilities. We’re in good shape and well-placed to meet the challenges ahead.

Comments

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin
Martin
8 years ago

Thanks for the interesting article, it shows that there are chances for everybody with a sound approach to community development. However, I miss: Concrete figures, benchmarking, weaknesses. Without this, the article risks to ressemble PR rather than helpful analysis. (this is just my personal opinion, I am not acquainted with the discourse, so I may be mistaking).

I wish you success,

Martin (from Germany)

Richard Barwick
Richard Barwick
8 years ago

All true! Unusual perhaps for someone to agree with a Council Leader’s PR machine, but as a tenant and regeneration professional in International House, it is indeed the case. Not that I’ve ever met Mr Clarkson, but this endorsement will inevitably ensure that my company secures some work from his Council one day!
Richard Barwick, Regeneration UK (www.regeneration.uk.com)

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top