Maidstone is undergoing a transformation. No one local could have missed the completed works on the roads and pavements and the creation of Jubilee Square in the town centre. As the County Town, Maidstone should attract such investment and make the most of Maidstone’s many existing assets.
This new look Maidstone is bringing more attention to the town centre and in the last 18 months a dedicated team of local people have pioneered ideas to improve the Town Centre and draw people into Maidstone. This group are called the Maidstone Town Team. A group of volunteers who make things happen with the support and funding from Maidstone Borough Council.
The idea of having a ‘Town Team’ was borne from the Portas review, an independent review into the future of high streets published in December 2011. Making a number of recommendations in order to help high streets flourish, the review recommended the creation of a ‘Town Team’: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for the High Street. Maidstone Borough Council did just that, applying Mary Portas’ ‘High Street’ recommendations to Maidstone’s Town Centre creating the ‘Maidstone Town Team’ in the summer of 2012.
The Town Team website shows their commitment by stating ‘Our mission is to enhance the town for those who live in, work in and visit Maidstone, through volunteers from the local community coming together and making a difference’. It is obviously a group of people with a passion for their home town and it is hugely intriguing to see the concept of people working together on a common goal for all to benefit. This is how a community should act!
To get a better idea of how the Town Team work I spoke with Jennifer Hunt from the Maidstone Borough Council who described her role in relation to the Town Team: “As the Local Economy Project Officer I develop and deliver projects in relation to economic development and regeneration in Maidstone borough, and specifically Maidstone Town Centre. Through my work with Maidstone Town Team I organise and run events and campaigns to promote the town centre. My role also includes the identification of external funding opportunities and the development of bids for grants to support the Council’s economic development and regeneration projects and priorities.”
Jennifer is very positive about the Town Team, the difference it is making and the future impact it will have on Maidstone Town Centre. She points out that although the Town Team is overseen by the Borough Council, the Council itself do not come up with the ideas – this is solely down to the Town Team and as all the members are from the local community, the Town Team represent what the people of Maidstone actually want.
This year the Town Team held the Chinese New Year event on 1st February in Fremlin Walk, Week Street and Jubilee Square and the events to come are St. George’s Day Celebrations at Jubilee Square on 26th April, Maidstone Fringe Festival in Jubilee Square on 3rd May, Maidstone Fashion Week on 6th and 7th May at Rafters and on 10th May at Royal Star Arcade, the Maidstone Arts Festival will be held on 14th, 21st and 28th June and 12th,19th and 26th July at Jubilee Square and the Maidstone Arts Parade on 5th July will parade throughout the town centre.
These are ambitious events planned by the Town Team and project goals need to be met. It is Jennifer’s responsibility to monitor any events or projects the Town Team work on and ensure they are delivering what they have promised to bring in a return.
The budget for the Town Team is not supplied on an agreed regular basis, it is more random than that, but over the next two years they have been allocated a slice of the Section 106 money paid by ‘Next’ who will be developing at junction 7 off of the M20. Section 106 money is the cost developers of larger sites pay to the council to reduce the impact of that development. Developers sign a S106 agreement as part of their planning permission and the council decides where to spend this money e.g. improve education, health, transport etc.
Funding for the Town Team after the next two years is not clear and Jennifer tells me “one of the challenges set for the elected group at present is how they make themselves more sustainable, what other methods can we use? What body can we become to bid for the funding pot because the Town Team is an independent group. We [Maidstone Borough Council] have provided a couple of years of money and encourage the group to find other ways of funding projects themselves. The team know the more we achieve the more likely it is they can get more funding.”
The Town Team make a difference. The most successful venture so far has been the Maidstone Arts Festival which last year attracted so much footfall the festival dates became extended and the festival will be happening again this summer.
The success of the Maidstone Arts Festival is backed up by Jennifer: “We got really good feedback from it, to the point where local councillors released some extra money from the budget saying ‘if you can do more please do’ because it had gone down so well. People were coming in on a Saturday not knowing what would be there, but just coming into town to see! There was one weekend off and someone came up to one of the organisers saying ‘you weren’t here last weekend where were you?’ so people were coming into the Town Centre on the off chance to see the festival. There were deck chairs out in Jubilee Square for people to sit and have a drink – it was a very festival type atmosphere and the event seemed to hit the nail on the head with what the Town Team were delivering for people.”
“As the team matures they will begin to start having a more strategic view of the projects so they have short term event type projects and longer term projects so they deliver on all time frames to increase the effect the Town Team are having – at the moment the Town Team is still quite a young entity.”
The Town Team work on projects that fall under three major categories – Regeneration, Arts and Events and Marketing. There are always a lot of ideas and as well as the events outlined above, the Town Team are working on other plans including trying to secure free Wifi for the town centre, providing up-lighting for the Town Hall to highlight some of the splendid historical architecture Maidstone boasts and providing vinyl posters (possibly in 3D!) for the windows of vacant retail units. These are all long term projects which depend on funding and a lot of hard work but they will make a big difference to the look and feel of the town centre.
Jennifer continued: “People put a lot of time into the Town Team because it is something they are passionate about in their own lives. Some want events that can be shared by everyone else and some want an impact for regenerating a space (providing up-lighting for the Town Hall for example.) There are some phenomenal people out there – the unsung heroes who are willing to give up their time voluntarily.”
“People seem to be appreciating the efforts the team are putting in because it’s being done by the community – people’s neighbours, people you share your bus into work with or sit next to at the coffee shop. There are other Town Teams that I know of where things are decided by a really high level board and delivered through an officer at a council and whilst this can be seen as still delivering the right things, we have reversed that process and although the Council holds the budget and I have to be responsible that the team are making good use of it, as much as we can we are giving the power to the Town Team.”
“I like to think we are getting the balance of control right and it’s not us at the council dictating to the Town Team what we want – why would they volunteer to do something I just told them too! The Town Team are certainly the new kids on the block and it’s very exciting but nothing happens overnight and doesn’t happen without the work of lots of people.”
The Town Team is made up of three subgroups – Marketing, Events and Regeneration and each has a nominated chairperson who sits on the Executive panel who represent the groups views. The members represent people from everyday Maidstone. Members include people representing the shopping centres and retail, town attractions, town forums and associations and public authorities alongside many other members who are listed as company owners or simply as residents.
One of the pleasing impressions I left with after my meeting with Jennifer, was that this team are cutting through any unnecessary bureaucracy or red tape to deliver. Above all, it seems this idea shines through as harnessing some good old fashioned common sense to get things done.
The Town Team’s website www.maidstonetownteam.co.uk keeps people up to date on the latest events and has a twitter feed for news updates. The team want to hear from people so if you feel you want to get involved get in touch by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and support this initiative by attending the many planned events this year.
Photographs credited to Maidstone Town Team website. Photograph of Jennifer Hunt credit to Jennifer Hunt.