Goodbye Tesco, and thanks for nothing.
Last Thursday, following the scrapping of 100 planned stores in 2014, Tesco informed 49 more communities that it was to halt developments in towns across Britain including its controversial proposal for Lowfield Street. In October, we told Tesco that its treatment of communities blighted by their inaction was nothing short of a ‘national scandal’. As you might imagine, Thursday’s news has done little to change our view of their appalling disregard for local communities.
Some might say that knowing 150 towns have been treated in the same way offers some comfort. It doesn’t. Like you, our only concern is for Dartford.
There have been many views expressed since the announcement and whilst it is perhaps inevitable given the closeness of an election that a handful in the political community were quick to board a convenient bandwagon, the vast majority of residents have expressed anger with Tesco but also some relief that the uncertainty is now over and that Dartford can now explore a better future for Lowfield Street.
Entirely fairly, many are urging the Council to move fast. We can assure you we are.
Like dozens of other towns, Dartford had no powers to stop Tesco’s deep pockets buying up land and no legal powers to force them to leave, but as the economy finally recovers the one thing Tesco cannot crush is the strength and determination of this town to recover from the harm done to it by a dithering supermarket. Dartford is a town with a long and great market-town tradition and all of us who live in this town and love it are convinced that its strength lies in that history. Dartford will not be beaten by an ailing supermarket.
Like hundreds of other places, Dartford suffered during the retail recession but new shops are now opening, work on Aldi is underway and Lidl has submitted plans for a new store of its own. After a tough few years for Britain’s High Streets the work of the Town Team (a partnership of traders, businesses, media, stakeholders and the Council which does not always receive the plaudits it deserves) is starting to show real results. Today, it is the retailers of the Town Team, not politicians, who are reporting that our town has turned a corner.
The town has successful markets, hosts great free family attractions and as the St George's Day parade and the Christmas Lights event show only too well, can attract thousands to events that knock spots of other towns.
But it is Lowfield Street that dominates the news today and we want to update you on our position.
Our view. Tesco should relinquish the land... and fast.
It is clear to us that Tesco must relinquish the land it no longer intends to develop. They may be thinking of alternative plans of their own but we have given them our very clear view that Tesco is a ‘toxic’ brand in Dartford and they should relinquish the land to those with a better desire and vision to deliver. Significant interest is already being shown by a number who believe they can.
Our view. Lowfield Street must reflect our town heritage and take a lead from the success and character of Central Park.
Dartford must work fast to engage new investment in Lowfield Street and that work is underway. We know that local people have many great ideas and suggestions for what should happen to Lowfield Street - ranging from an Ice-Rink to local affordable housing - but the Council does not own the land and must search for solutions that are acceptable to local people, contribute positively to our town and can be delivered.
Of course, we all have our own views about what should happen to Lowfield Street and a look at what we have achieved on land the Council DOES own probably gives a good indication of what Conservatives on Dartford Council want to see. We can say with some pride that at a time when most councils are pleading ‘cuts’ and ‘savings’ we have probably invested more in community facilities than most councils do in a generation. Major investments in a community stadium, Dartford Judo, Hesketh Park pavilion and Fairfield Pool have all been based on great design and giving local families quality facilities to enjoy.
But more than anywhere else, it is perhaps the transformation of Central Park since 2009 that gives the clearest indication of our approach ... and perhaps a benchmark to what we must aim for in Lowfield Street. Our Central Park renovation is a modern success story with a design unashamedly drawn straight from our town’s heritage and tradition. It is clearly loved by local people (and when even our political opponents can’t bring themselves to criticise it, we have surely done it right!)
We believe it is its relationship with Central Park that is the key to Lowfield Street’s future. Ensuring that Lowfield Street connects with, reflects and enhances the amazing public space that has been created at Central Park should set the bar for what is acceptable and what is not.
Our view. We must lead from the front, harness the power of residents’ ideas and act openly & decisively.
We know we must find ways to let all the people of Dartford be meaningfully engaged in the future of Lowfield Street. Events are moving fast and so too must public engagement.
So within days, we are to reconvene the cross-party Lowfield Street Working Group but immediately boost it with voices from the community, residents’ groups, local media (print and virtual), local businesses and traders. Its first task will be to tackle the issue of resident involvement and ensure that EVERY constructive voice and point-of-view is heard. But more than just listening we will rely on this group - with authentic voices of residents and traders at its heart - as we take Lowfield Street forward.
We know only too well that there is great mistrust whenever Councils talk about ‘consultation’ because residents are frequently engaged too late and offered too few options.
It may have worked in the days of sparsely attended Council Meetings and a single weekly local newspaper but the world is different today. The internet, social media, multiple local news sources, blogs and the faster flow of information calls for a different way of working and offers new ways to reach and involve people.
The opportunity we have now, perhaps as we have never had before, is to involve more people and hear authentic Dartford voices AS plans and visions are shaped. It means no longer hearing only from councillors at the table but from community representatives, traders and real stakeholders AS options are considered. They can be relied upon to let you know if a wrong track is taken!
We have other views too, less immediate perhaps but no less important. It is clear that new laws and regulations are needed to constrain the power of supermarkets to buy land crucial to local communities and then casually discard it. This is not a Dartford problem, but a national one.
There is a great deal of anger at Tesco’s appalling treatment of our town but listening to our community and translating it into action CAN work. We know because we have done it.
Just six years ago we launched the Central Park Vision and asked Dartford to tell us what it wanted.
From that simple exercise came all the changes that you see today - the bandstand, skatepark, cafe in the park, a new eastern entrance, new bridges across the Darent, kids waterplay and outdoor gym among many others. It spawned a host of activities delivered by the Council like free Sunday concerts at the Bandstand, afternoon tea at the cafe, Outdoor Cinema performances of ‘Grease’ and ‘Top Gun’, Shakespeare in the Park, and the Christmas Carol Concert, but better still it sparked activities delivered by the community - the Saturday Park Run, the skate jam, fitness sessions and the annual Steam Fair. Isn’t that what true community-led regeneration is all about?
Lowfield Street may be a different kind of challenge but we believe that working openly, working together and involving as many local people, groups and businesses as possible is the right way.
Leadership is surely about having a positive ambition for the things you care about, not riding a bandwagon, point-scoring or throwing criticism from the shadows. In the last few days my colleagues and I have had huge encouragement to lead from the front and act decisively and openly.
That’s what we will do.
The Council will publish more information on its website in the days ahead but please don’t hesitate to email me on email@example.com.
Jeremy Kite. Leader
The Conservative Group,
Dartford Borough Council