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Have your say on major development planned for Ashford town centre

Former cinema makes way for new spaces and better connections

Residents, local businesses and other stakeholders will soon be invited to comment on ambitious plans to redevelop a key site in Ashford town centre.

The scheme promises to help rejuvenate the town by enhancing its cultural offer, creating new spaces and better connecting the various parts of the town centre, bringing new residents into the town centre and attracting further investment for the benefit of local communities.

The scheme – which is currently being referred to as St Mary’s Fields – includes the former Odeon cinema in the Lower High Street and the Vicarage Lane car park. It is a mixed use development, aiming to deliver new cultural space with a food and drink offer, and around 230 quality homes to complement the market town’s history and heritage.

Ashford Borough Council’s proposals have been refined to take into account feedback from a team of specialist consultants and architects. The impact the pandemic has on the economy and high streets have also influenced the way the scheme has been shaped.

The council is currently talking to key stakeholders, including cultural organisations and local businesses, and the people of Ashford will soon be able to have their say on the plans when we go out to public consultation this summer. The public consultation will include digital and face-to-face events supported by a website and is currently planned to last eight weeks over this month and September.

Views will feed into the completion of a report which is expected to go to cabinet later in the year, followed by full council. A planning application on the final scheme could be submitted as soon as early next year.

The scheme includes the part demolition of the rear of the former cinema to reveal an uninterrupted view to the Grade I-listed St Mary’s Church. The church is an iconic building at the heart of the town centre and lends its name to the emerging development, which also includes the existing Vicarage Fields site.

The high street frontage of the building is being retained and will be repurposed to create a multi-use indoor cultural space. A new public square will be created adjoining the churchyard and a large residential square and shared gardens will feature as an amenity for people and families living in high-quality homes built to exacting sustainable standards.

Town centre reset

Since its appointment, specialist mix-use developer Milligan, has been working alongside the council to shape the plans. As part of Ashford’s wider ‘Town Centre Reset,, the proposals are developing under ever-changing contexts. The impact of Cocid-19 on high streets, the knock-on effect that has had on public spaces and the need to bring communities together, has fuelled an exciting progression of what was originally proposed. 

MIlligan says the site will create a new urban community in the heart of the town centre, easily accessed, and “buzzing with charm and character”. The scheme will re-awaken the story of the town’s history.

Bringing Ashford’s heritage to the fore is a driving principle behind creating flowing, connected spaces and opening up views of the imposing St Mary’s Church and linking to Ashford Baptist Church through improved pedestrian connections. 

The former cinema building will be repurposed to help enhance the town’s cultural offering. It will provide residents and town centre visitors with unique reasons to visit and it will also enliven the high street creating a place to visit, work and play for all the family. 

The St Mary’s Fields scheme will also comprise high-spec homes which will set a new design precedent for Ashford, breathing life back into the town centre and reinvigorating a sense of pride and ownership for those living there. 

Stuart Harris, Milligan chief operating officer, says: “The townscape of Ashford is evolving and this scheme has evolved to keep pace. Critically, it creates a new public realm and enhances the routes to and from the high street bringing regeneration and much needed footfall to the lower high street. 

“This is high street reinvention at its best – we’re future-proofing for needs that are coming to the fore as we speak. This scheme will create a deep connection with the community by giving them a mix of uses that will enrich everyday life and provide an important connection to the town’s history and heritage thanks to an architectural focus on St Mary’s church and the enhancement of the town’s cultural offer.” 

Council view
Ashford Borough Council Leader Cllr Gerry Clarkson describes the project as “the foundation and catalyst to the regeneration of Ashford town centre, providing a dynamic and quality environment to work, live and play”.

“The creation of a living urban community in the heart of the town centre is our vision. The St Mary’s Fields scheme is a vital ingredient in the transformation of Ashford. I believe these proposals are brave, bold and ambitious. Through our innovative regeneration strategy, thoughtful urban design and planning policy, the council shares that sense of excitement.”

The specialist team behind St Mary’s Fields
Developer Milligan has a rich pedigree of developing mixed-use projects with inspiring retail and leisure at their heart. It has developed, asset-managed or partnered on properties valued at more than £5bn and has developed more than 3m sq ft in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Barcelona and Bilbao as well as operating the retail and leisure at Camden Lock Market. The Milligan approach is to drive value to all stakeholders by creating places where communities and businesses can thrive. www.milliganltd.com

MICA leads the design team and provides architectural design services, building on the existing masterplanning work carried out by Ash Sakula architects, and bringing regeneration and planning expertise to evolve the concept design through to a successful planning application. 

MICA is an award-winning architecture and conservation architecture practice with extensive residential, public and heritage experience, from the successful Southbank Centre masterplan and Centre Point regeneration to arts projects for Lyric Theatre Hammersmith and Rambert School; multiple projects in the heart of Oxford to the new Fairfield mixed use development in Croydon. www.micaarchitects.com  

Turley is providing specialist advice on town planning, heritage and economics, and its strategic communications team is devising and delivering the stakeholder and public engagement exercise. Turley is a full-service planning and development consultancy with a wide range of experience in town centre regeneration. www.turley.co.uk

AECOM is project manager and quantity surveyor. AECOM is the world’s premier infrastructure firm, delivering professional services across the project lifecycle – from planning, design and engineering to consulting and construction management. It partners with clients in the public and private sectors to solve complex challenges and build legacies for future generations. AECOM is a Fortune 500 firm with revenues of $20.2bn in 2019. www.aecom.com

The background

Ashford Borough Council took occupation of the former Odeon cinema in September 2018. The building occupies a prominent position in the town centre and includes an adjacent council-owned car park off Vicarage Lane.

In 2019, a request by the Cinema Theatre Association to have the former cinema listed was rejected by the Government after it agreed with Historic England not to add it to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest because it failed to meet the relevant criteria.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past local weekly publications he has worked for include: the South-East London Mercury* covering the Borough of Greenwich as a junior reporter; Orpington-based News Shopper as a sub-editor; and the Kent Messenger when based in Larkfield, Maidstone, as deputy chief sub-editor. He has also worked for the following dailies/nationals: Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor on a car fleet magazine. His first foray into property ownership saw him move from London to Rainham (the Gillingham, Kent, variety). He has subsequently lived in Chislehurst, Petts Wood and Orpington in the Borough of Bromley (which he still regards as being in Kent). In more recent years he owned three different properties on the Kings Hill (West Malling) development.

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