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Published on January 16th, 2019 | by The GC Team

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Turning a town around

The town of Ashford in Kent is claiming to have “bucked the national retail trend” with a strong finish to 2018 and local traders feeling positive about the year ahead.

While the general UK retail picture certainly looks bleak, the latest footfall and vacancy rate figures for the town centre show Ashford has much to crow about.

Graham Galpin, portfolio holder for the town centre, says its success is down to continued investment.  

Footfall for 2018 was up 5.8% on the previous year, and while many towns suffered from a fall in shopper numbers during December, Ashford gained 27% on December 2017.  80,500 shoppers visited the week before Christmas, and footfall rose by 52% during Christmas week.

“All town centres are facing challenging times, and we are not alone,” said Galpin, “but as part of our changing offer we are seeing new faces and continued investment in the town, and now we have further good news which shows footfall on the up and our vacancy rates bucking the national trend.”

And the positive investment in the town is having a knock on effect, according to Galpin. Ashford College is bringing students into the town, the Commercial Quarter is bringing in office workers, and the new Elwick Place cinema and a new Brewery are adding to the location’s leisure and evening offers.

“To make our town centre an appropriate community place for shopping, and much more, we need to offer something beyond just a shopping experience,” says Galpin.

“There is a long way to go, but we know we are doing something right here in Ashford as the High Streets minister Jake Berry has highlighted our approach as one to follow and many other local authorities are looking at what we are doing and are looking to replicate it in their towns.”

Melissa Dawkins, Curator & Manager of ‘Made in Ashford’, a collaboration of small businesses trading from one store located in the town’s Park Mall, has noticed the impact of higher footfall on trading figures. 

“Made in Ashford saw our best Christmas ever, with trading up 30% on December last year. We finished our year up 17% on our previous year, which we are very pleased with,” she commented.

“The footfall in the town has increased dramatically and there is a real positive feeling after many of this year’s events, such as Splashes of Summer and the Snowdog art trail, which has been a direct driver to our successes.

“The local community continues to be very positive about independent retail on our high street and are keen to support us, which is another major factor in it being a fantastic year for us. We have started 2019 by doing a refit, by ourselves, to make our shop even better and we are very confident and excited about our future in our town.”

County Square, another main shopping centre in the town, saw annual footfall figures for 2018 increase by 3.1% year on year, with almost 6.2 million people visiting the location.

The last week of December’s figures were up by 9.7% year on year and the first week of January 2019 showed an 8.5% increase on January 2018.

Centre Manager Frances Burt said: “We’re delighted that County Square has been bucking the trend on visitor numbers, since most shopping centres are well down on footfall.

“Not only does this apply to us, but by working alongside other Ashford retailing groups such as the Town Centre Business forum as well as Ashford Borough Council’s Town Centre Regeneration team, we all work hard to try and improve the shopping experience for our local community and for people visiting Ashford to shop or just meet up with family and friends.”

The Government’s investigation into the decline of the high street resulted in the formation of a Town Centres Expert Panel. The panel spent six months examining the many challenges facing the high street to present a plan of action which has now been published.

The report calls for a community-focused approach to tackling the challenges facing high streets and town centres and puts community involvement and local leadership at the centre of a plan to create the town centres of the future.

“A lot of the recommendations in the report reflect what is already happening in Ashford,” says Galpin. “We are delighted to be leading from the front. Place changing is recognised as important as place making, and there is going to be a fund to pay for significant infrastructure, as well as recognition that there needs to be a town centre champion. It’s a vital part of the report that you need strong leadership to take the plan forward.  

“Town centres will need to be reinvented for life in the 21st century and if we don’t repurpose and change the offer then we won’t have a high street to worry about. I have always said I want Ashford town centre to be a fun place to visit.

“An important part of what we offer is that fun element, otherwise we just end up with a town that is very lacklustre, and we have all seen a number of these up and down the country. Every town needs to keep working hard to improve.”

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