As Kent’s only city, Canterbury has attracted many headlines for its array of cultural assets. INDEX assesses how the area is continuing to evolve with a number of significant sites set to come forward for development
Words: Neill Barston
Having a diverse culture, rich history and a host of amenities has contributed towards Canterbury’s status among the most desirable areas to live in the South East.
The area’s economy has benefitted from millions in tourism from visitors from around the world, with its crown jewel in the form of its remarkable cathedral acknowledged as an exceptional world heritage site.
Beyond this, the city also offers some of the most highly rated schools and higher education facilities in the region – with a substantial financial boost experienced from its 30,000-strong student population.
While Canterbury’s vibrant history – including its Roman past evident in its ancient walls, and its distinctive Medieval central streets remain at the core of its fabric, the pace of change and commercial, retail, and residential development in the 21st century is making its mark.
Among the city’s most striking projects of the past few years have been key plans at Kingsmead (at the former Serco depot), for a multimillion new six-screen cinema, retail facilities, 189 new homes and apartments catering for nearly 500 students, which could prove vital for the area’s development as it faces competition from other towns in the region.
There have also been positive enhancements to other central areas, including The King’s Mile area, which has received major regeneration funding enhancing its environment.
This has proved especially popular with residents and visitors alike, with improvement works set to continue over the next few years in the streets immediately surrounding the city’s revamped Marlowe Theatre, which has proved a significant success since opening just over five years ago.
Furthermore, broader infrastructure improvements over the past five years including the introduction of the HS1 rail service have made commuting into London from Canterbury far more viable than ever. Consequently, the popularity of rail services has led to planned upgrades to railway parking facilities to cope with the additional demand.
However, much like the wider East Kent area, Canterbury faces its fair share of tests as it continues to grow, with a perceived lack of affordable housing and pockets of social deprivation among key areas for concern. This could potentially be addressed with approval being recently granted for 4,000 homes in the south of the city as part of the Mountfield Park development, which will go hand-in-hand with significant road infrastructure improvements for the area. This is another issue that has been of pressing concern for residents, as traffic problems continue to be among the most highlighted issues facing the area.
Further proposed schemes in Folkestone with the Otterpool Park development for around 12,000 homes, and thousands more homes potentially to be built at the former Manston Airport site, mean that East Kent’s landscape could be significantly altered in the coming years.
Speaking to INDEX, Simon Cook, Leader of Canterbury City Council, believed that while the area faced its challenges, there were plenty of reasons for optimism.
With the economy showing signs of improvement, he believed the planned enhancements in infrastructure and housing provision would make a difference.
“Canterbury is definitely changing. It’s always been a vibrant city – the economic hub of East Kent and of course home to the Canterbury Cathedral and we welcome seven million tourists each year. We have three universities and the largest further education college in England delivering almost £1 billion to our economy, and we have over 30,000 students in the city. But we’re so much more than that. We’re developing a real reputation as a centre for cultural and digital business growth. The HS1 line allows businesses and residents to get to and from London in under an hour,” explained the leader, who felt that the council had been proactive in supporting key developments that would benefit the city.
In his opinion, this was especially the case in relation to higher education provision, with three universities in Canterbury serving the whole of East Kent providing a key driver for the area’s economy.
Mr Cook added: “Our universities also continue to innovate – from Canterbury Christ Church’s EDGE Hub driving growth and investment in engineering and technology – to the University of Kent pushing forward with their campus masterplan.
“And yes the population is growing. There will be another 6,000 houses in or around Canterbury in the next 10-15 years. Keeping our city working whilst building these houses will be a major focus for the city and county councils. The developments also include commercial office space that is sorely needed as our local businesses thrive. Balancing all of this will be a real challenge for us – but who would want to live anywhere else?”
Meanwhile, Canterbury’s recently elected Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, explained to INDEX that while she is proud to be representing an area that has a considerable amount going for it in terms of its cultural heritage and amenities, there are pressing needs facing the area’s growing population.
One of her most urgent concerns centres on the fact that there remains housing pressures on the city – with local authorities across East Kent and Canterbury especially, challenged by comparatively high Government house-building targets as part of their local plans. In Canterbury particularly its large population of students, who have made a wide range of positive contributions, have thrown the issue of apparent affordable housing shortages into sharp relief.
The MP said: “In the 20 years that I’ve lived in Canterbury, the area has changed. In two decades, student numbers in our city have grown hugely and the shift away from ordinary houses being used as ‘digs’, to purpose-built student accommodation is noticeable. I’m in favour of housing stock being returned to be ordinary domestic dwellings as this will help solve the housing shortage here.
“I’m also campaigning to restrict developers from being given permission to build so-called ‘fleecehold’ properties in our city. This is where ‘estate charges’ or ‘service charges’ are charged to people, even when they own their homes and the land the home sits on. I’m calling on our council to stop granting permissions for such developments.
“We must also look at the sort of new houses that we do need to build. Young people who grow up here, or in the surrounding villages, need to be given the chance to own their own home here. We must ensure affordable properties really are affordable and sort out the shortage of two and three-bedroom homes.”
The MP explained that the council urgently needed to invest in social housing, highlighting the fact there are nearly 50 local families in temporary accommodation.
She is also campaigning on pressures relating to hospital facilities for the area, with the city’s hospital still being without an A&E department.
In terms of business prospects, Ortwin Thyssen, who owns an established jewellery store in The King’s Mile and chairs a traders’ group for the area, explained that he has seen considerable development in the city since he arrived in the UK. He believed the introduction of the city’s Business Improvement District (BID) over the past couple of years has proved a positive force for supporting its independent traders.
Having witnessed many positive changes in recent years, he welcomed the prospect of greater housing being created for the area, as well as improved retail and commercial facilities – providing they were handled sensitively.
“I have been here in Canterbury around 20 years now and it had a very different feel to the place then. There was no Whitefriars shopping centre at that time, so over the past five years there has been a lot of regeneration that has been good for the city, including The King’s Mile. We have seen the introduction of the Business Improvement District that has helped Canterbury flourish and also kept it cleaner,” he explained.
“We’re keeping busy here as a specialist business, but there are pressures here on housing that make it expensive for people to be based in Canterbury – they need to be able to live near where they work, so I would welcome more affordable housing,” added the business owner who said despite its challenges there were many positives to life within the area.
Thankfully, there are strong signs that with careful planning and appropriate investment in infrastructure, the city can look forward to enjoying continued prosperity ahead.