The annual Southborough Town Meeting on Tuesday was told of new efforts to stop future housing development on the Ridgewaye Fields after the Hub is complete.
A key figure in promoting the Hub project, Peter Oakford, a Conservative who sits on the Town, Borough and County Councils, said: “The lawyers have been instructed to develop a programme that can be brought back to Southborough Town Council for discussion that will put legal protection on those fields.”
Mr Oakford continued: “Provided the lawyers tell us there’s something we can do, it will be done.”
During public questions, Ian Gavin, a local resident who is an expert in third world development projects, strongly criticised what he called a “grotesquely manipulated” Council consultation on demolishing the Royal Victoria Hall.
Mr Gavin told the meeting: “I work in international development and I conduct many surveys and community consultations, including a £ 25 million programme from the British government, and I don’t think I have ever seen quite such a manipulated survey as this one.”
Mr Gavin continued:“11,000 people said they wanted to keep the Hall – 3,000 from this area – and the consultation gave them a choice of knocking it down or partially knocking it down. It’s utterly meaningless…. They weren’t given the chance to say “can they keep the hall”.”
The Town’s mayor, Glenn Lester, responded by saying: “Southborough Town Council always works pro-actively for its community…we are looking to bring forward new facilities in Southborough because it is financially sustainable to do so”.
Glenn Lester continued: “When the options came forward with everything we were offering, most of the people that came to the consultation were in favour of having a new build, because they could see what was on offer”.
The full time Kent County Council official leading the project, Jonathan White, said : “The consultation did give them the “Option 1”, did give them “Option 2”, did give them the option of “other” and stating what they wanted in there, and we looked very carefully at what that other was.”
When Jonathan White, was asked what exactly the promised new “State of the Art” theatre would include, he said it hadn’t been decided.
He told the meeting: “Depending on the amount of income that we get coming in, there is a shopping list of “nice to haves” and we can upgrade the lighting and the sound etc etc depending on how the finances go ultimately.”
Councillor Peter Oakford was also asked about his past public commitment to a new theatre that was “State of the Art”. Mr Oakford said: “We are developing a brand new theatre. All the equipment will be state of the art and we certainly hope that it will be the envy of all the towns around us. That has always been our wish and we have worked with a theatre consultant that knows what they are doing in order to develop that.”
Project officer Jonathan White also confirmed the doctor’s surgery was moving forward with becoming part of the site and that the housing had increased from 55 to 62 residential units. He said he was in discussions with three retailers about taking the retail space and the whole build would take 18 months.
Resident Diana Blackwell asked if the whole project had a fully costed business plan.
Jonathan White responded: “It does depend on the final design that’s made, so – if we are changing things – then it’s pointless writing a business plan that you then change, so when the design is finalised we will then start to bring forward a business plan.”
Mr White continued: “There’s also decisions that need to be made by Southborough Town Council about whether or not they would allow a Trust to run the facility. If they do that, they can avoid business rates going forward. So those decisions will also impact on the business plan.”
Jonathan White said traffic impact assessments were being made and they had not shown so far that there would be a critical impact on the Yew Tree Road junction.
That prompted a blunt response from Duncan Oakley, who said: “As a resident of over 50 years, I can assure you there are issues already.”
The mayor, Glenn Lester, was asked how Southborough town centre could be smartened up.
Mr Lester said: “I would love Southborough High Street to look a lot more tidy and clean and decorated and fantastic. The trouble is that in the past – having council offices that have looked derelict and the Tesco’s site has been derelict, it has been very hard for us to get involved with local business and say to them let’s pick up our game a bit and improve our environment for everybody”.
Mr Lester continued: “I’m hoping our hub and bringing new things forward in Southborough High Street will enable us to inspire and get other business owners and other premises owners in the High Street to shame them a little bit and get them to improve their properties. If we lead from the front, it’s the best way forward.”
Around 50 residents attended the 2016 Town meeting, which lasted an hour and a half.
Here are my audio recordings of the Town Meeting in three sections: