Delivering growth in Ashford was always going to be a long-term exercise. The plan being drawn up by local stakeholders sets out a timetable stretching to 2031.
But developments are already moving swiftly. A shopping mall is under construction in the town centre and a fast rail link to London will be in place in 2009. Ashford Borough Council is close to finalising its local development framework core strategy. The Greater Ashford development framework, adopted by Ashford's Future last year, offers a vision for growth.
The targets are ambitious, with a virtual doubling in the size of the town by 2031 The plans feature 31,000 homes and 28,000 jobs. This will be achieved through a mixture of brownfield development and urban extensions.
There is a surprising amount of derelict or underused railside land on the approach to Ashford International station.
One of the key aspects of the plan is that housing growth should be accompanied by more jobs so that Ashford does not become a commuter town. Last month the Campaign to Protect Rural England voiced fears that this balance would be lost in the dash for homes (Planning, 29 September, p3). But local partners insist that balanced growth will be achieved.
Simon Bandy, senior regeneration manager at English Partnerships, says homes, jobs and infrastructure improvements will emerge together. "The council and the local community accept that if one part is pulled away, the plan starts to fall apart and we will not deliver the housing because people will not want to live here. That is the underlying basis for this plan - creating a quality town," he says.
He predicts that developments such as Bellway Homes' Victoria Road apartments scheme (see panel) will boost confidence in the local housing market.
"Victoria Road will show demand for high-quality housing in this location and demonstrate the sort of quality that other developments will be expected to reach," he maintains.
Bandy believes that in practice, housing, employment and infrastructure growth will regulate themselves. "If jobs do get significantly out of balance with housing, the town will not have the public transport capacity to take people to jobs in other places and there certainly will not be the road capacity," he reasons.
Rather than selling Ashford to particular employers or sectors, stakeholders in the development are working to create the underlying conditions for employment growth to follow. "Office-based companies will benefit from the 35-minute trip to London from 2009 and investors will be able to take advantage of Ashford's very diverse employment base," says Bandy.
But jobs growth is not all that is necessary for Ashford's expansion.
For example, there are a number of important environmental factors that will have to be dealt with. "Ashford has significant water issues that affect its ability to grow," says Bandy. "There are areas that flood and as in most of the South East there is relatively low rainfall and it has an important and fairly sensitive river, so there is an issue surrounding waste water and its dilution."
Transport improvements will also be crucial. The town's two motorway junctions are struggling to support existing traffic and will be upgraded partly through the use of developer contributions. But public transport will also play a far bigger role. "Ashford has previously been very car-dominated so we need to change that," says Ashford's Future sustainable transport manager Andy Phillips.
The strategy includes extensive park-and-ride sites on the outskirts of the town, improvements to bus services and a flagship bus-based rapid transit system called SmartLink. "It will be a high-quality link between Cheeseman's Green in the south-east of the town, going through the town centre using a new through route south of the ring road and onto junction 9 of the M20 and the Eureka Park employment area," Phillips explains.
SmartLink is due to be up and running by 2012.
In drawing up the masterplan for the town's growth, the delivery partners invited local residents and stakeholders to place tiles on a grid representing various growth corridors and stipulate what type of development and services they wanted to see in each. "The outcome was almost unanimous in going for a compact model of development," reports Bandy.
Relatively high densities in the town centre, efficient use of both greenfield and brownfield land and integrating development into the existing town are key themes of the masterplan. They reflect acceptance by the borough council and the local community of growth as long as it delivers benefits for the town.
"If you are going to double the size of Ashford it needs to be a place where people want to live and invest," says Bandy. "Otherwise the land-use element means nothing. The majority of what is required will be delivered by the private sector and will require individuals, whether company directors or house buyers, to want to move here."
VICTORIA ROAD: BREAKING RING ROAD STRANGLEHOLD
The Victoria Road development, just over the road from Ashford International station, illustrates how the agencies responsible for planning growth are tackling the challenge.
In May, English Partnerships appointed Bellway Homes as preferred developer for the 1.4ha site. "On paper it is a scheme for 260 apartments, so you could say it is not a strategic site. But the development has a number of outputs that will enable delivery of other crucial projects," explains English Partnerships senior regeneration manager Simon Bandy.
The access road for the scheme will open up a new route for through traffic and relieve the busy 1970s ring road, which cuts the town's historic core off from surrounding residential areas. Andy Phillips, sustainable transport manager at Ashford's Future, sees reconfiguring the ring road as a priority for the town centre.
"A lot of people are surprised by how attractive the historic core is, but that is not the impression you get from driving around the ring road," says Bandy. "Most of the town centre development sites are around the ring road, so unless we change the quality of this belt we are not going to attract additional residents."
The second major benefit of the Victoria Road scheme is that it will provide access and infrastructure for a further and higher education campus on adjoining land. Funded by the Learning and Skills Council, the site will become a key part of South Kent College and provide educational support for the local workforce.