Tunbridge Wells Planning officials have agreed that the heritage value of the Royal Victoria Hall should be taken into account in the forthcoming decision on whether to demolish it – a decision likely to welcomed by groups hoping to save the building.
Previously the Borough Council did not have the ability to give any weight to the loss of the Hall’s heritage value, when looking at the merits of the planning proposal. However, it seems the new heritage status is unlikely to be a major factor when the planning committee meets in the coming weeks to decide if the 116 year old Hall should be knocked down.
The news emerged as a petition against the current Hub plans continued to gain steady support. 800 people have now signed the electronic petition in the past 6 days. It was started by veteran local campaigner Brian Dury and is explained here:
Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon the public comments on the official planning site totalled 189 against the Hub with 33 in favour, so 85 % are now objecting.
The Royal Victoria Hall is not deemed by Historic England to be a building of “national importance”, which means it has no national listing and so there is no compulsion on the planning committee to reject the plans to demolish it.
However, buildings can be recognised on a local level and 15 ordinary residents completed a three page nomination form in recent weeks, proposing the Royal Victoria Hall as a “Local Heritage Asset”.
The conservation officer for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Mark Stephenson, made the case in a 9 page document just published on the Tunbridge Wells planning website that “The Royal Victoria Hall be considered a Non Designated Heritage Asset for the purposes of this development proposal.”
This status gives the same level of protection to the Hall as if it had gone through the process of being named a “Local Heritage Asset.” Mr Stephenson said this “Local Heritage Asset” category couldn’t be taken forward as there wasn’t enough time to go through the usual 12 week process.
The head of the Tunbridge Wells Planning team, Karen Fossett, Mark Stephenson and another planning official visited the Royal Victoria Hall on 7th October and decided after a hour long tour of the whole building to accept the Conservation Officer’s recommendation to consider the theatre a “non designated heritage asset.”
However, Southborough Town Council, which wants to demolish the 116 year old building, will welcome parts of the Conservation Officer’s report which effectively argues the Hall only just scrapes through the process in which four different categories are considered for a building to qualify for heritage asset status.
The Conservation Officer’s report says: “Given that the building would only meet one criteria in one category, the level of significance as an non designated heritage asset would be substantially less than for a building that met multiple categories and multiple criteria in each. Although some judgement needs to be applied to the importance of each category and each criteria.”
The new designation could help save the Hall in a finely balanced judgement, but if the planning application is viewed by the councillors on the Tunbridge Wells planning committee as having great community benefits and also meets the Borough’s targets for new house building, then they would still be likely to approve the current Hub plan.
A bigger block to the planning proposal is the objection from Sport England. It emerged on Friday that the Hub team have proposed overcoming that by issuing new plans that mark out extra football pitches on the northern end of the Ridgewaye fields in an area that currently slopes severely and is mainly now used by dog walkers and joggers.
The Conservation Officer’s report included a lengthy debate on the degree of alteration of the Royal Victoria Hall. It dismissed evidence that 94 per cent of the volume of the Hall (i.e. the inside of theatre itself) is still substantially unaltered.
Mr Stephenson concluded: “This is not, to my mind an appropriate value calculation. Rather, when determining the level of alteration, it is most appropriate to discuss the parts of the building that hold significance and how that has been altered.”
Mr Stephenson concluded: “The form and nature of the existing building can still be readily observed for the most part but much of the finesse has been lost or hidden.”
On balance Mr Stephenson concluded that the Hall should not be disqualified from heritage status due to the degree of alteration. His report acknowledged that the pitch pine doors, Victorian tiling and banisters, the proscenium arch, panelling and ventilation system remained in tact.
Here is a summary of the key points from Mr Stephenson’s report on the four key categories:
(1) Architectural interest: “While the building in its original form was typical of its period with interesting detail and form, and while its interior design appears well appointed and functionally the building is stated to perform well, there is no strong evidence that the design or construction is of a particularly high quality or includes any particular technological innovation.”
(2) Historic Interest: “It has been suggested that there is a strong connection with the end of World War II in that celebrations where held in the theatre…..However, such celebrations were held throughout the country in village, church and town halls of all types and sizes. While this is a national event of great significance, the connection to this building it is weak and does not confer any particular or unusual heritage merit.”
(3) Social and Economic Development, demonstrating an important cultural role within the local community: “I understand there has been a petition supporting the retention of the theatre, that had a high number of signatures from within the local community and beyond to surrounding communities and theatre companies or organisations. This has not been supplied either with this nomination or as evidence submitted by the public in relation to the current planning application. I am also not aware of the nature of the question upon which the signatories where asked to sign. As such it is difficult to give this matter significant weight….while there is good evidence that the building has significance to some in the local community, how strongly this equates to Heritage significance to the community rather than functional significance is difficult to ascertain from the submissions”.
(4) Townscape Character: “The loss of the original frontage and the removal of the enclosure and street trees resulting in an expanse of hard surface often used for parking have resulted in a more exposed, less accomplished presentation which does not contribute positively to the townscape in this location.”
Mr Stephenson concluded that only category (3) was possibly met.