County town must stop saying ‘no’ to everything

A highly-placed source in Ashford’s corridors of power told me recently that hands were rubbed in anticipation when, true to form, Maidstone council rejected a bid by three of Britain’s leading business names to build a shopping centre on the edge of town.

Ashford is understandably now courting the jilted suitors behind the thwarted Newnham Court plans – Waitrose, Debenhams and Land Securities – and shows more strategic understanding than its westerly neighbour.

Maidstone has previously lost opportunities.

The proposed development at Newnham Court
The proposed development at Newnham Court

It said “no” to the railways in the 1840s, “no” to high-speed rail in the 1990s, “no” to a strategic road plan that would have eased the present traffic nightmare – although this could be eased by the proposed
£8.9 million gyratory scheme – and “no” to Junction 8.

Maidstone has now said “no” to more than 2,000 jobs and dashed the hopes of many young people seeking work.

Some jobs may be clawed back from a future Maidstone East development but that’s far off.

Promised improvement of the Mall Chequers shopping centre is also in the far distance. Newnham Court was shovel-ready. Not all residents shop in the town centre, preferring to go elsewhere or online.

Maidstone needs a fresh mindset. It is – or should be – a strategic regional capital situated between London and the Continent. It is no longer a small market town that needs protection from apparently disproportionate retail developments.

Its population is growing and is forecast to grow steeply, with enough potential spending power to support retail at various locations over the coming decades.

And there are many effective ways that town centre and other retail sites can co-exist.

Apart from Ashford, Maidstone is surrounded by competitors keen to poach its shoppers and business – Bluewater, Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Westfield at Stratford.

An attractive retail centre would have countered that impact and attracted people from further afield to tempt into the town centre to enjoy Maidstone’s retail, restaurant and heritage offer.

If Maidstone did not want a Junction 8 development – and there were powerful environmental arguments against – it should have offered suitable alternative locations for successful industrial operators like ADL and Scarab to keep them in the area. It did not, and meekly let them go.

If Maidstone is to shake off its reputation as a town of lost opportunity, it should be thinking big, proud to be bold, excited about taking risks and not afraid to innovate.

Civic chiefs should display the courage to lead rather than follow a default “no” response to so many quality projects.

They should want Maidstone to play a major regional role in the South East and Kent.

Repeated negative decisions are high risk. Prestige businesses may turn away, deterred from working up costly ideas.

Maidstone could find that its “town centre first” strategy – absolutely right for a small town – could lead to a “Maidstone Last” outcome as far as the UK’s biggest names are concerned.

The greatest show in the county

The Kent County Show – what a brilliant day’s infotainment.

I’m amazed every year by how good this Detling extravaganza is, with something for everyone, from townies to countryfolk.

It’s packed with farm animals, fun and enlightenment.

Among the Kent County Show entertainment was the Dog and Ducks show with Chris Hupp and ‘Boots’ from Romney Marsh
Among the Kent County Show entertainment was the Dog and Ducks show with Chris Hupp and ‘Boots’ from Romney Marsh

So much work goes into creating a county show – increasingly endangered across the UK – and we are lucky to have the energetic and now more entrepreneurial Kent County Agricultural Society to pull it off every year.

The 85th was special, with a royal opening by the Duke of Kent for the multi-million-pound Maidstone Exhibition Hall, a large venue with huge commercial potential to help underwrite the enormous cost of staging the “greatest show in Kent.”

Saluting the charity sector

A warm welcome for the inaugural Kent Charity Awards.

The Third Sector does great work across the county – as exemplified by the KEIBA Outstanding Contribution to the Business Community of Kent award going to social care champion Nadra Ahmed.

The recession hit charitable giving, but the more astute charities have overcome that trend by working in a more business-like way.

Thousands of volunteers give up their time to help those less fortunate than themselves. Most are unsung and deserve recognition.

We should salute them – so well done to Sarah MacDonald who proposed the idea and for businesses supporting it.

Summer fruit full of flavour

We are so lucky to live in the Garden of England in summer.

Freshly picked asparagus, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, apples and pears are on our doorstep – with so much more flavour than the imported stuff.

Roadside stalls tempt us to stop. In supermarkets, we can choose produce labelled Kent. Crowds at top sporting events enjoy Kentish fare.

There's plenty of Kent-grown fruit to enjoy
There's plenty of Kent-grown fruit to enjoy

This is great for our producers.

We should cherish our talented hard-working growers and their teams for offering us all the delicious fruits of their labour.

And what a great career option for young people.

Firms may rue failing to train

The economic upturn has cut unemployment across the county.But now Kent faces potential skills shortages.

Firms that failed to retain, train and develop their people during recession may rue the day.

Lots of young people are still without a job – but don’t be surprised if employers desperate to catch the economic high tide look again to workers from overseas.

Euro rail link will plug us in

It seems Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, is to launch its delayed services between London, Kent, Germany and Geneva by 2017, with stops at Ebbsfleet and Ashford International.

Ebbsfleet International train station
Ebbsfleet International train station

DB touted its planned services in 2010 after a trial run to St Pancras, and even hoped to carry the German team to the 2012 Olympic Games, but that plan stalled.

This latest will plug Kent, the UK’s most international county, further into mainland Europe – and the home of the World Cup winners.

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