Dartford is a great place: good schools, great transport links (let’s not discuss the prices), amazing parks and woodland, a good hospital, three excellent libraries and even a museum not to mention a free events programme that includes a festival which is one of the biggest free events in the South East as well as Cinema and Shakespeare in the Park events. So why do some residents feel ashamed of the town? I’d say it is because the town centre. Eleven years of boarded up shops in Lowfield Street have meant any efforts to improve the town centre have struggled to bring any success. Although there are some great things in the town centre such as The Orchard Theatre, the Farmer’s Market, some good restaurants (Le Tre Sorelle for example) and some good shops, the reputation of the town centre remains poor.
The current situation in Lowfield Street began in 2003 when a £94 million plan to build 500 homes and a Tesco hypermarket in were passed. The plan included the pedestrianisation of Lowfield and Market Streets, however the plan was quickly met with protests when it became known the Plans included the building of a road through Dartford’s central park. The Council approved the Plan, which was eventually overturned by the last Government in 2006. Since then there have been repeated promises by Tesco about all the things they will bring to Dartford, but aside from changing the boards covering the buildings which were once businesses and homes in Lowfield Street little has actually happened.
A recent article on theguardian.com described how Tesco have 310 sites with no store built on them throughout the country and that they admit they have no plans to build on many of the sites – although I can see no specific detail as to which ones or how many they are referring too. The current planning agreement requires Tesco to start building in Dartford by March 2015, but what will happen if they fail remains unclear. DBC seem unable to take any action to force Tesco into action and therefore the situation remains. I feel the current situation is an affront to democracy – with the town’s regeneration paralysed by the action (or in-action) of a large multi-national company.
A similar situation exists with the various properties which remain empty and boarded up in the town. Two such prominent buildings are the old The Jolly Miller and Eleven Cricketers which have both been closed and boarded up for around 30 years. Like Lowfield Street they are situated so that a lot of visitors drive past them (at the corner on the bottom of East Hill) . The Council (to their credit) have used their limited powers to try to force the owner to complete their renovations, but as the building is structurally safe there is little else they can do. With the supply of social housing and affordable rental property seemingly outstripping demand in Dartford the fact these properties sit empty is very frustrating, but equally frustrating is the fact that, by leaving the properties in their current state the owners of both sites (and others) are able to impact negatively on the reputation of the town with those elected to represent and act for the town having no powers to act to improve the situation. It seems to me this is wrong, but until this situation is amended by legislators the situation will continue and in all likelihood the town centre will continue to struggle both in terms of reputation and in visitor numbers.