It’s supposed to be the boom town of the south east, but some more feisty reporting from Paul Francis of the Kentish Express today exposes the reality behind the hype. The flagship multi-million pound Discovery Centre that was to embody the spirit of Ashford reborn is in deep trouble and could be scrapped altogether.
Problem? The futuristic ‘landmark’ library and community services centre originally budgeted at £13m would probably set the public coffers back an awful lot more, and has run into what look like terminal difficulties with potential developers. Instead… we might just get a new library.
Your chances of seeing this futuristic beast in downtown Ashford now appear to be zero
The fate of this unfortunate building may have important lessons for Wye Park. It was meant to be a partnership between Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council, backed by government funding, and designed to take advantage of Ashford’s reputation as one of the south east’s fastest growing towns. But it looks like the hot air is evaporating quickly when the bills start to add up… and they are a lot less than the £1 billion or more Imperial are dreaming of for Wye.
The Discovery Centre, with its gleaming steel frontage, above, is now officially in a state of limbo, with no real designs, and no plan to produce them. KCC and Ashford seem uncertain who exactly is to blame for this. KCC Councillor Mike Hill told the KE, ‘We have not done any further work. We are still in discussions with Ashford council and it is actively pursuing the commercial possibilities on Elwick Road and, until that has been resolved, we are keeping our options open.’
David Hill, Ashford’s chief executive, adds, ‘This is all very much a matter for Kent County Council but we share its view that the cost of delivery of such a “standalone” building as originally conceived is likely to prove prohibitive.’
Ashford’s Mr Hill says the success of the Ashford Gateway building in Park Mall as a town centre ‘shop front point of access’ for public and voluntary sectors ‘alters the picture somewhat’. In other words, no-one needs this gleaming steel elephant, though given that the Park Mall office didn’t exactly creep up on the local council without their knowing one wonders why no-one spotted this years ago.
Wye watchers should, perhaps, draw two conclusions from the Discovery Centre saga. The first is that Ashford is not the boom town some would have you believe. And the second is that it can be very hard for large public authorities to get even relatively small projects like this off the ground.
This story also makes interesting reading alongside the tale of the Imperial joint venture to build a new hospital in Paddington, which collapsed costing the tax-payer £15 million and led to a critical report from the National Audit Office. How much are these failed council daydreams costing ratepayers? Will the auditors tell us one day do you think?