Published: 06:00, 03 May 2021
A bold vision for the County Town’s future aims to make Maidstone the ‘Business Capital of Kent’ by 2030.
This is the ambition outlined in a new draft economic development strategy drawn up by planning and development consultants Lichfields on behalf of Maidstone Borough Council.
A “state of the nation” document supporting the long-term vision reveals the scope of the challenges faced - the initial hit to the local economy from the Covid-19 pandemic could be equivalent to £575 million and 4,000 jobs across the borough in 2020.
The draft strategy, which was approved for public consultation by the borough council’s economic regeneration and leisure committee last week, sets out five key areas where attention will be focused as part of an initial five-year plan.
These include developing Maidstone into a destination for visitors both in the daytime and at night, capitalising on growth in the green economy, and helping to develop a thriving rural economy away from the borough’s urban centres.
Viticulture - the wine growing industry - is a particular opportunity, according to the draft strategy, with Kent increasingly growing a global reputation for the quality of its produce and the opportunity for wine tourism.
Richard Balfour-Lynn, who co-founded the Hush Heath Estate winery in Staplehurst with wife Leslie, told us he welcomes the recognition of the role his industry can play in creating more jobs in rural communities.
However, he warned that more must be done to invest in skills and infrastructure if young people locally are to benefit from this growing sector.
“There’s a huge tension of opening a business like ours in a very rural area,” he said.
“There’s a huge tension between people living in the area who don’t want change, who will try and block licences or planning permission, so I think there is a balance to be had.
“I think the Government are helping enormously by creating lots of land for homes, creating tension in local communities, but the facts are kids have got to live somewhere.
“It’s the same with businesses, if you are going to encourage businesses into rural areas then help getting planning permissions, help getting licences, all those things are really important, within a controlled environment if it’s all done properly.
“Where I think the council can help, and where I think central government can help, is more apprenticeships for kids, aged 16 to 18, to learn viticulture. We were having conversations with Mid Kent College prior to Covid, we will take them up again after that.
“But again, providing funding for people who want a vocational training when they come out at 16 as opposed to A-levels and university. I think those are things that are really positive.
“If we are going to be at the heart of a new industry in this area of English wine and viticulture then we need educational establishments, local colleges, actually saying this is something they want to put on.”
Mr Balfour-Lynn believes the flourishing wine industry will do much to help bring extra spending into the local economy through increased tourism, benefitting not just the producers themselves but also others in the hospitality and tourist trade.
“What we have done is team up with six other major Kent wineries and created the Wine Garden of England network,” he said.
"The wine industry has a huge number of benefits to the local rural community...”
“The seven of us are acting as a tourist destination, really promoting wine tourism into Kent as a whole. So you can come down for three or four days, maybe visit three or four wineries, but also see other local attractions.
“It’s giving people reason to visit, it’s giving employment to a younger generation where, frankly, people are less attracted to travelling into London every day, which everybody around here used to do.
“I think the wine industry has a huge number of benefits to the local rural community.”
The draft economic strategy outlines a number of trends and factors which underpin this focus on the rural economy, from the strength of the county’s ‘Garden of England’ brand to the increasing demand for holidays here in the UK amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Away from the countryside, there are ambitions to, as the document’s authors put it, re-imagine Maidstone’s town centre as a destination for visitors around the clock.
Like towns across the nation, Maidstone has not been immune to the changes in behaviour which have seen many swap the high street for the convenience of online shopping, at the strategy does admit “it is unlikely that pre-pandemic patterns of activity will return in the same way” once the threat of the coronavirus ebbs away.
However, as the borough’s economic hub, the vision is to revitalise the town by promoting an “open for business” brand which encourages more smaller firms and start-ups to locate in the area.
Recent years have seen the borough’s stock of business space gradually decline, with local office space falling by 17% between 2001 and 2019, driven recently by the trend for offices to be converted to housing under liberalised planning regulations.
A decline in number of town centre office workers, a trend dramatically exacerbated by the ‘work from home’ order during Covid, has a significant knock-on effect for traders reliant on the business their footfall produces.
Reshi Vadhia, owner of Pro Shoe Repairs and Dry Cleaners in the High Street, said: “A lot of our trade relies on office workers, they have all been working from home and not had the need to get their suits dry cleaned or shoes repaired.
“Luckily we have had a bit of Government help, that has been a big help, but it doesn’t cover what you would be earning. We hope our customers come back to us.”
Figures released by the council show town centre footfall returning to above pre-Covid levels in the first week after lockdown restrictions were eased for business.
A report provided to MBC showed that in the week commencing April 12 there was an increase of 1.8% week-on-week compared to the same period in 2019.
Council head of economic development John Foster said: “This is excellent news. Shoppers have returned to the high street and the county town in great numbers.
"I want to thank Maidstone’s retailers, cafés and restaurants for working so hard to create a safe and enjoyable experience for visitors and shoppers. Re-opening town centres is vital to their future success and to those businesses within them.”
As well as detailing the challenged felt as a result of the pandemic downturn, the draft strategy for the borough also looks forward to how future growth in jobs and investment can be achieved, especially in highly-skilled and green sectors.
Medical technology and life sciences are identified as a key opportunity by maximising the positive economic impact from the Maidstone Innovation Centre currently being constructed at the site of the Kent Medical Campus.
The report also identifies opportunities in the green recovery agenda, which it says aligns with wider council aims.
Councillors have been urged to radiate positivity about the future of the borough as it looks to attract greater inward investment.
Maidstone Borough Council leader Cllr Martin Cox struck an optimistic note as he welcomed the draft economic development strategy when it was presented at committee.
However he cautioned against lapsing back into negativity about the County Town’s challenges, on issues such as traffic, when meeting with new contacts from outside the area.
Praising the work by the consultants who drew up the plans, he said: “It is a great document to have, a great document for us to use, and I hope it will reiterate the ambition and positivity that we have to have as a borough.
“It is important that when we interact with our partners, when we interact with new people coming to the town to look and consider whether to move their business here.
“Whether it be a new B&B or a new med-tech company coming to see whether it will bring its future and prosperity and bring it to the town, I think it’s very important that we remain positive when we interact as councillors with people.”
At its meeting on April 20, the council’s economic regeneration and leisure committee approved plans for an eight-week public consultation programme on the economic strategy, to take place following the local elections in May.
"People should think of this as the go-to place to set their business up...”
The document will be reviewed following comment from the public, before being brought back to the committee for full adoption later in the year.
Cllr Cox told the committee he wanted to make Maidstone the number one choice for those starting a business.
He said: “Yes, we are in the middle of Kent, that’s why we are the County Town, we want to be the ‘business County Town’ as well. People should think of this as the go-to place to set their business up.”