It’s a time for looking forward.
Ashbourne had a rough year last year. Not much went right for the town. Decisions about our future were made which defied belief and it would be tempting to fall into the “there’s nothing we can do about it” camp. We have ended 2013 with budget cuts affecting development in Compton, disruption coming as Sainsburys develops, new houses being planned everywhere except the place we wanted, the High Street struggling to make a living, popular local businesses being closed by planners, QEGS receiving a shockingly poor Ofsted report, the Thursday market on its knees, and our habitual problems of traffic and parking unresolved.
It would be easy to overlook the gains: a wonderful new library, planning permission for a new football pitch, flooding seemingly under control, some exciting new shops on the High Street and finally a shop at Waterside that Ashbourne people want.
Looking forward to 2014 it would be nice to wish for world peace and a cure for disease but I think it is better to look for something which is achievable.
For me, it’s about Ashbourne reclaiming its own destiny and putting some pride back in the town as a result. In business, companies work to a strategy and a strategy often begins with a SWOT analysis. This identifies the forces which need to be addressed:
- Strengths are those things which Ashbourne does better than most others. In a subsequent plan they are the things that we emphasise and make use of. A strength is only a strength if it is used. Examples of strengths would be our cultural events which make the town a good place to live and attract tourists, the historical performance of our education system which provides a talented labour force and attracts new residents, the mixed economy which balances tourism with industry and agriculture, and Shrovetide – an annual opportunity to put Ashbourne on a world stage. In the current mood it can be very easy to ignore the strengths and sometimes we need outsiders just to remind us what they are.
- Weaknesses are those things which Ashbourne does worse than most others. There is a tendency to live in the past and refuse to accept there are any weaknesses. There can also be a tendency to think everything is rubbish and have a list which is too long. Weaknesses are just things which need to be either avoided or addressed in a strategy. Weaknesses could include our traffic problem which makes potential trade avoid the town or our parking issues which mean they keep on driving. For industry a weakness could be the lack of qualified, affordable labour to support expansion. The current weakness of QEGS is also a challenge until proven otherwise.
- Opportunities are those things that we could take advantage of but that we can’t control. A strategy would try to exploit the opportunities – it’s where growth and positive change comes from. If we don’t take advantage of opportunities; others will. Examples could be the opportunity for UK tourism created but the economic downturn, the availability of grants for towns like ours, large businesses looking for a new home, changes in legislation which create opportunity for those quick enough to understand them, the boost to the local economy if we could capture an extra 5% of local spending, the unused development at Waterside and landowners who have land they want to sell. Again, these can be hard to envisage if our heads are down and we are feeling sorry for ourselves.
- Threats are the things which endanger what we have already. A good strategy will create a plan to either disarm the threat, avoid it or weaken its impact. They mustn’t be just ignored. We have a whole range of predators circling the Town – the tough economy, District and County Council budget cuts, landowners and developers looking to make a quick buck, threats to our local fire service provision, planners looking for a place to put an unpopular traveller site, and poor working relationships with District and County Councils.
The point of a SWOT is to take the time and properly lay out the landscape rather than just be Pollyanna-satisfied or ridiculously doom-and-gloom.
There is another saying in business “fail to plan, plan to fail”. There is a case to be made that what happened in 2013 was a failure in our own planning not misfortune. All the things which hit us hard could have been foreseen. The first signs of planning failure were there with the closure of Busy Bees cafe, the threat to the Thursday market to create parking spaces and the ridiculous arguments about the colour of our shop fronts. The Localism Act changed the demands for housing provision and our District Council interpreted it wrongly. The number of parents paying for additional tutoring and the appalling quality of some teaching at QEGS in some areas was nothing new – just being ignored.
So why weren’t these things foreseen? I think we weren’t looking and we were relying on others to do the looking for us. If there isn’t a plan it really doesn’t matter because strengths aren’t emphasised, weaknesses aren’t addressed, opportunities aren’t exploited and threats aren’t mitigated. With our own busy lives we rely on our Town Council to look after our town, the Head of QEGS to look after the school, and the local business owners have to fend for themselves.
The pace of life is changing so that we worry about the here and now rather than the position in five years or ten years time. Just have a look at some of the old footage of Ashbourne in these videos.
Look at how the landscape has changed – the new buildings which have emerged since -but also look at how clean the streets are and then consider where we have progressed and where we have got worse. In ten years time what would we like the Ashbourne play reel to show? You can make the task simpler. Imagine a slow-moving camera scanning the length of St John Street or sweeping round the Market Square on a Thursday. Imagine the highlights video of Shrovetide 2024 – how many and who are playing at 9 o’clock at night in the snow?
All these factors are related and rely on Unity. Everyone in the town, when asked, can declare themselves Up’Ard or Down’Ard in a trice and be able to explain the objectives of their tribe. 2014 should be the year when we can all declare ourselves Town’Ard. I would love for the Ashbourne News Telegraph to be able to publish the agenda for 2014 in the first edition of the newspaper – not just a budget but a real agenda for Ashbourne – what’s going to be built in our town, what major planning decisions are coming up and what the expected population and profit and loss will be in December. It’s so basic and so straightforward but we can’t even answer the fundamental questions which affect our own future.
In 2014 I would like the Town Council to turn its attentions 100% to Ashbourne and lead a Coalition with the Neighbourhood Team, Ashbourne Partnership, QEGS, the churches, sporting groups, traders and industry leaders. I want them to produce an Ashbourne Strategy so that we can plan for success rather than be buffeted by others. I want them to take a mature approach and accept that having a plan is far better than each interest group fighting on their own and, as a result, there will need to be compromise. In the most recent planning hearing at the Leisure Centre Councillor Lewis Rose showed leadership by ignoring the gallery and calling for a vote which avoided the cost of an Appeal he thought the DCCC would lose. He acknowledged the unpopularity of his call but he made a personal call nonetheless and for that he deserved praise (although I disagree with it). Councillor Andrew Lewer MBE gave his own clear explanation before voting to take a stand. I want the Ashbourne Town Council to stop deferring for political affiliation reasons to DDDC and DCC and I think the larger Councils will appreciate the reduced workload from us not having to be “looked after” all the time. Finally, I want some pace and ambition. These things don’t have to take months and years. Far bigger and more complex corporations do this in weeks because they have need, desire and hunger.
If, in December 2014, someone democratically selected can show me a single sheet of paper which lays out what Ashbourne tried to achieve in the year and how we performed against it I will be delighted. I would be even more thrilled if they could turn the page and show the similar plan for 2015, 2016… Whatever those pages said I would support wholeheartedly regardless of how they affected me and my family because nothing is worse than failing to plan.
World Peace will sadly have to wait for another year.
What are your hopes for Ashbourne in 2014?