Published: 06:00, 18 February 2021
The future of Ashford town centre will be put at risk if controversial plans to extend the Designer Outlet’s opening hours are approved, according to critics.
McArthurGlen bosses have asked the council to relax planning regulations which currently force the site’s new restaurants to close at 7.30pm.
They want to keep Five Guys, Yo! Sushi and Comptoir Libanais open until 11pm - but managers at both County Square and Elwick Place have objected to the proposal.
In their application, Outlet chiefs say “the evidence strongly shows allowing the additional trading hours of the new restaurants and cafes will not have a significant adverse impact on the vitality and viability of the town centre”.
However, opponents claim the shopping centre has used an out-of-date survey of the town and say an extension of the opening hours would deter shoppers from visiting other parts of Ashford.
Two of the Outlet’s existing restaurants - Pizza Express and Wagamama - can currently close at 9pm as their opening hours were formed under a separate planning permission.
But the eateries which opened when the centre’s £90m extension was completed in 2019 have to serve last orders before 7pm and close at 7.30pm.
Outlet bosses say despite the success of the centre following the opening of the extension, customer feedback has “consistently been negative” towards its food and beverage offer.
In a statement submitted to Ashford Borough Council (ABC) by property consultancy firm Montagu Evans, which is working on behalf of the centre, it says about 40% of all negative comments from shoppers are related to food and drink specifically.
It added: “The top trends from guest surveys include the lack of options and limited choice, long queues and inability to obtain a table, and the restricted opening hours meaning the restaurants close before the closing of the wider Outlet, which is prior to the key evening dining period.
“The Outlet’s overall guest satisfaction is impacted by these low scores given on the food and beverage offer, which is otherwise performing well in other categories.
“Social media feedback supports this, with the food and beverage offer being a key topic of discussion, with confusion around earlier closing times, long queues and issues with getting larger tables for family meals.
“The long queues which begin to form prior to the last food orders and closing times have resulted in some confrontational and anti-social behaviour from guests eager to obtain a table before close.”
Bosses added “it is clear Ashford town centre performs a different role to the Designer Outlet”.
But managers at the £75m Elwick Place leisure complex disagree, with developers Stanhope PLC saying their site’s “success and contribution to the town centre is seriously threatened” by the plan.
They claim the complex is “vulnerable to any loosening of restrictions at the Outlet”, adding: “Extending the closing time has the potential to encourage visitors of the Outlet to remain there rather than going into the town centre during the evening.
“Bearing in mind the proportion of food and beverage units in both locations, it is likely the Outlet will compete with rather than complement the town.
“No evidence has been submitted to robustly demonstrate there will not be a significant adverse impact on the town centre.
'We should now include McArthurGlen as an annex to Ashford'
“Indeed, the retail statement relies on out-of-date data.
“Due to the complex’s infancy and significant implications of Covid, Elwick Place and the food and beverage offer within the town centre as a whole is extremely vulnerable to the proposed extension of operating hours.”
County Square bosses share a similar view, saying the town centre vacancy rate “continues to increase quarter on quarter”.
In October last year, 12 of the shopping centre’s 62 units were empty, having lost M&S, Debenhams and River Island in recent times.
“Both developments are suffering from high vacancy rates, meaning their combined contribution to the town centre is threatened by this proposal,” they said.
“County Square has unparalleled knowledge of the state of the town centre and can evidence the existence of long-term and persistent vacancies.
“Any relaxation of planning controls that allows for the Outlet to become more self-contained will only exacerbate this.”
Despite the criticism, Richard Lavender, president of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber “fully supports the application”.
He added: “We feel this will not detract customers from the town centre, but enhance the offer of Ashford as a town and a higher percentage will want to visit the town centre as part of their visit to the Designer Outlet.”
Former ABC cabinet member Graham Galpin has also shown his support, saying “we should now include McArthurGlen as an annex to Ashford”.
“The change in the geography of desire is making destinations such as the Outlet a considerable asset to Ashford town and borough,” he added.
But Cllr Dara Farrell - deputy leader of the Ashford Labour Group - says he is not a fan of the Outlet’s proposal.
“I don’t see any merit in the argument from the Outlet that it needs its hours extended,” he said.
“When you look at the state of the high street now, we need to be doing what we can to support the businesses in the high street - not trying to get more and more people over the Outlet.
“When you speak to a lot of people from Ashford, they say the Outlet is partly responsible for the decline of the town centre.
“I have some sympathy with that, although Hugo Boss and Armani were never exactly going to strike up next to Greggs in the high street, so I don’t necessarily completely agree with that view.
“The Outlet is a great employer, but it also needs to give something back to the town by trying to drive some footfall into it.”
KentOnline approached the Designer Outlet for comment, but a spokesman said there is nothing to share at this stage.
In the planning application, Montagu Evans added the “expansion of the Outlet benefits the town centre as it draws visitors to Ashford with a higher likelihood of linked trips to the town centre”.
It said: “In practice, it is expected the restaurants will normally close at 9pm.
“However, an 11pm limit will ensure that on special days, such as Black Friday, restaurants can stay open later to serve visitors of the Outlet.
“The 11pm closing time constitutes a final closure time, although it is likely that during most of the year the tenants would close at 9pm or 10pm in line with the centre opening or shortly after.”
ABC is yet to make a decision on the Outlet's application.
A spokeswoman for the authority said: “The applicant is aware of the concerns that have been expressed by objectors and that parts of the supporting documentation with the application, in relation to the suggested impact of the proposals, need updating to take into account the current situation in respect of the town centre.
“The impact of the proposal on the vitality and viability of the town centre is a key consideration for the council to take into account when reaching a conclusion on the application.”
ABC approved the Outlet's extension - which features Europe's largest living wall - in 2015.