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The Big Eight Projects: Ashford proves attractive to investors

Commercial Quarter

Commercial Quarter

Richard Wise, the UK chief executive of shared-office company Regus, quickly warmed to the idea of opening a new Regus base in Ashford.

“It has got medium-term prospects in terms of the economy and plans to grow the population,” he said after the opening of its new hub of 50 bookable offices in the Panorama building, a former office block turned into luxury apartments and serviced office space.

“We always look at what local government wants to do and we were impressed with what Ashford council was able to articulate about its vision for the town for the future.

 “We met with the council to see how they are planning to redevelop parts of the town centre, which is very exciting.”

Regus is the latest in a series of companies which found Ashford’s high speed transport links a reason to set up in the town.

“Any town with that level of connectivity to London is attractive to us,” added Mr Wise, who hopes the brand new offices will become a base for entrepreneurs splitting their time between London and their hometown.

“Every town within 37 minutes of London either has a Regus or we are planning a location. Ashford forms part of that solid group of towns which benefit from being well connected to the capital.”

Planning teams at Ashford council say their business case is built on much more than their access to high speed rail.

“Perseverance is what springs to mind with Ashford,” said Richard Alderton, council head of planning and development.

“If you knock long enough and loud enough at the gate you are sure to wake up somebody. A lot of people have been sceptical for a long time about development in Ashford and now that has changed.”

Central to Ashford’s growth has been its so-called Big Eight projects. These include:

  • The Commercial Quarter – a new 590,000 sq ft office campus next to Ashford International Station
  • Elwick Place – a town centre cinema with places to eat and drink around a new square and meeting place
  • Expansion of Ashford Designer Outlet.
  • Ashford International College campus
  • Junction 10a – providing a new motorway junction to support expansion and improvements
  • Jasmin Vardimon International Dance Academy – to develop the company’s existing offer in Ashford
  • Ashford International signalling – allowing access for new intercontinental trains to stop at Ashford
  • Chilmington Green – a new community with 5,750 houses and space for businesses, retail, schools and open space

The new Commercial Quarter, featuring 590,000 sq ft of office space, has involved the council’s purchase of International House, a block near the train station, which it wants to be the centrepiece for the development.

The former KCC chief executive John Bunnett, who left for Brett Group in November, also oversaw the purchase of the Park Mall shopping centre in the town centre.

“Ashford are a long way ahead of other councils doing this,” said Mark Quinn, director of Quinn Estates, which is part of a joint-venture to build new offices in the Commercial Quarter.

 “The team have been incredibly shrewd. International House is one of the highest yielding office buildings in Kent and they stole Park Mall. It is a real benefit to tax payers in Ashford.”

Mr Alderton added: “The government is not giving local authorities grant support in the way it did. They want us to find ways to raise income by using our imagination. The acquisition of land around the station is one way.

“Park Mall and the Commercial Quarter have a strategic purpose. We bought at a price which can cover our costs and long-term, who knows?

“There may be a retail opportunity there and then it changes from a regeneration asset to a financial asset, where we can develop something stronger for Ashford in the future.

 “These two investments are definitely for the long term and we are lucky to have had a chief executive with a private sector background who knew how to drive ahead a good deal.”

Ashford MP Damian Green said: “It is to the credit of Ashford to have this golden age of investment in big plans and projects.

“It has been slow progress but things are happening now. It is a moment to seize for Ashford and extremely exciting for the future.”

Plans to double the size of Ashford Designer Outlet – another of the Big Eight – have been approved but with strict conditions.

Ashford council’s head of planning Richard Alderton said: “It’s probably the strongest legal agreement of its kind in the country because we want to make sure the new offer that comes to the outlet is not what could come to the town centre.

“The pitch has been for top end operators – the Guccis of this world – to attract people down from London, the Far East and Eastern Europe.

“This is an opportunity to catch some of that market and put Ashford formally on the map.”

The cost of renting commercial space in London is one of the big reasons companies are moving from the capital to Kent.

Mark Quinn, director of Quinn Estates, said his company is in talks with three major banks about locating their staff to the first phase of the Commercial Quarter development in Ashford.

He said one potential occupant based in central London had been paying £48 per square foot a month in rent and is facing an increase in its bill to more than £80. In Ashford, they can rent space at £23 per square foot.

He said: “They can base staff who do not need to be in London here and they can also live in a nicer place. You need to be a millionaire to live in a flat in Kings Cross but not so here.”

The first phase of the Commercial Quarter, a six-storey 65,000 sq ft office, which will be built in a joint venture with fellow developer George Wilson, will be capable of employing 426 people, with another 55 employed in retail space in the building.

Overall, Mr Quinn said the Commercial Quarter will have 600,000 sq ft of office and retail premises, supporting 4,500 jobs and generating £11 million in business rates annually.

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