There has been talk of an Ashford metamorphosis for almost as long as I can remember.
The opening of the ‘Missing Link’ of the M20 motorway between Ashford and Maidstone in 1991 would surely bring prosperity to the town.
In 1994 I was sitting in our office in North Street when the Queen and France’s President François Mitterrand opened the Channel Tunnel now surely this would transform Kent and Ashford just up the track.
The opening of the Ashford Designer Outlet shopping centre designed by Sir Richard Rogers (designer of the Millennium Dome now the O2) was cause for cautious optimism but it would be 7 more long years.
HS1 came along in 2007, although I seem to recall domestic trains took two more years to become operational.
This was the game-changer and everyone knew it, but how long would it take for commuters to catch on and commerce to maximise the opportunities?
The answer: about 10 years depending on how you measure it.
Over the past 5 years, I have drawn confidence in the construction boom evident almost everywhere you look around Ashford. I have applauded Ashford Borough Council for their trailblazing ‘can-do’ attitude but like many others, I felt that more was needed to set the town apart.
Statement and landmark buildings, a whole new motorway junction, a watersports lake, a cinema and numerous housing developments including luxury riverside apartments — yes, in Ashford, followed.
But now, just last night, planning permission was granted for a major redevelopment of Newtown Works – an ambitious £250m pre and post-production Film Studio which will regenerate our historic derelict railway works.
The site is close to the International Station and recently extended McArthur Glen Outlet Shopping centre but it has far more significance than just a regeneration project.
For Ashford, it signifies a whole new creative personality combining a strong link with Ashford’s prosperous Victorian era with a similarly prosperous future bringing 1,000’s of jobs and believed to add £104m GVA to the local economy.
But it is the wider perception that will regenerate so much more than just our old railway works.
For decades people have been quick to dismiss Ashford as yet another failed market town but HS1 attracts a new audience who will judge it for what it can offer as a forward-thinking, vibrant and creative town with a strong link to the film industry.
In normal times, one could say with some confidence that 3,000 new direct jobs and another estimated 7,000 indirect jobs would have a meaningful impact on demand for properties in and around Ashford.
One would expect a high proportion of these to either fall into the traditional ABC1 demographic or equally important work with the tech industry where salaries are typically above the national average.
You would expect property prices to rise above the regional average.
However, these are not normal times, and it will be a brave, foolhardy even, estate agent that claimed he or she could predict future property prices.
I’m not going to be drawn yet.
But I was discussing this with our CEO, Roger Lightfoot, earlier today and his enthusiasm for this project was palpable.
“I’ve lived in the Ashford area for almost all of my 56 years and I can say with confidence that I think this is the most exciting thing to happen to our borough in all of those years.”
Roger does not work in our Estate Agency day-to-day but had this to say on property prices.
“If I were a gambling man, I’d say that in 5 years time property prices in and around Ashford will be higher than they are today. Although it may be a very uncertain and bumpy road for the next year or two.
“What I can say with certainty, is those good properties in and around Ashford will always be in strong demand. Our communication links, especially HS1, the beautiful countryside, the relative affordability of property in the borough and the vision of Ashford Borough Council in recent years exemplified by the new film studio development will see to that.
“There may well be some opportunity for individuals and investors in the short term. Fortune favours the brave!”
Time will tell.
I'm really looking forward to seeing this project take shape and hearing news of the likely film companies.
— Alex Davies, Managing Director Estate Agents
Photo courtesy of Quinn Estates