Cllr Blackwell 2: Plans for Hub Theatre are “Very Unrealistic”

Labour’s Cllr Nick Blackwell has said the Conservative promises to quickly eliminate all council taxpayer subsidies to the planned new theatre in Southborough are “very unrealistic”.

Mr Blackwell also says the Conservatives leaders have: “gone out of their way to pretty much alienate and hack off everybody who has ever been associated with the Royal Victoria Hall”, which would also hinder any efforts to set up a volunteer trust to run productions in the future.

Here is the remainder of the interview transcript with Mr Blackwell (below), with a link to listen to the audio at the end.

blackwell-v2

Q: The plan is for the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells to provide professional technical expertise for this new Hall. Do you think, given that they are the professionals, that they will actually make the Hall busier, more viable than it was before?

A: Well, it remains to be seen because of course we read about these things in the Courier. We get them second and third hand. So, we haven’t seen exactly how that’s going to operate. The thing to remember is that you don’t make money from local arts. You know if you look at the Assembly Hall, it has a massive subsidy. I think it is about £ 225,000 a year of subsidy. Trinity £ 50,000.

Q: Cllr Oakford said he would be able to organise it so there would be no subsidy after 3 years.

A: I think if he could do that, he could probably package it and sell it to every arts organisation in the country. I think it’s very unrealistic. You are going to have to subsidise the arts. The Royal Victoria Hall – yes was subsidised – but it provided a service for the people of Southborough. We are not out to make a profit. We don’t want to be irresponsible with the tax payers money, but whether it is a bowls club or a theatre, these are local amenities that are run for the benefit of the community of Southborough.

FROM 50520 (Second Tape at 1’30”)

d-hollandQ: Can Cllr Oakford get the volunteers who used to work on the Victoria Hall involved in this new professional theatre?

A: Well they have gone out of their way to pretty much alienate and hack off everybody who has ever been associated with the Royal Victoria Hall. We had a fantastic base of volunteers, experts – some of them with national and international expertise – who were willing to give up their time and energy to work with the Hall and the local community and over a period of 18 months, they have managed to upset pretty much everybody. And you can see that from the letters that were written in from the planning application and the representations that were made to the Town Council. So if they are hoping to run a Trust model (after the 3 years with the Assembly Hall in charge), where are these people going to come from? Because they have really burnt all their bridges.

Q: What about the design of the new building? Cllr Oakford did say to me that he quite liked red brick and perhaps that could be part of the design but he would leave it to the experts at KCC. What do you think of the designs as they stand?

A: I think at the moment, they look cheap and nasty. It is one of those “off the peg” public sector builds that you can see right across the country. I can see it is cheap, but does it relate to Southborough? Does it have anything to do with our locality? It is the kind of building that you see popping up all over the place from Milton Keynes to South Croydon. It’s going to look like what it costs to build. And this is a cheap build and it will look like it.

hub-nov-pics-1Q: So, what do you hope will happen next?

A: I hope that people will start to listen. People will start to respond. People start to be a little more accommodating. Perhaps I hold out a bit of hope because we have been told there is another architect who has brought on for the last part of the project. I think everybody is suitably unimpressed with what has been offered up from Pick Everard…. They still have a chance to turn this around, but they have got to start listening to people and actually making changes. If they just carry on with this headstrong – we’re just going to ignore you – demolish the Hall prematurely, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Q: Could they come up with a scheme that kept the Hall but also delivered the Hub benefits of the other community buildings?

A: Of course they could. But there has got to be a will on the part of the project board to actually listen and work with the people in the town. I am sure this is not a project that is beyond the wit of a group of architects and town planners. I know when we had the original brief from Allies Morrison, they put forward some excellent suggestions about incorporating the historical with the modern and making them work sympathetically. And I think a lot of people in the town were really energised and excited by that. That was within the last 3 years. They started the project and then they moved off the scene when KCC came in. We got Pick Everard and we’ve got this thing that looks like a pre-fabricated industrial unit. Not good.

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Cllr Blackwell 1: Cllr Oakford is “incorrect” on State of Victoria Hall

The Head of the Labour Party group on Southborough Town Council, Nick Blackwell, has  said the Royal Victoria Hall is “fit for purpose” and he rejected the argument made by the Conservatives that refurbishing it would not be viable.

Mr Blackwell, who’s a former Town mayor, said that Cllr Oakford of the Conservatives was “categorically wrong” when he told Southborough News last week that a wall that was part of the Royal Victoria Hall was “bowed” and therefore the building would cost too much to save.

Mr Blackwell insists the designs for the new community facilities could still incorporate the Royal Victoria Hall. Mr Blackwell said the Hall: “hasn’t got any structural issues. It just seems a much better idea to work with an existing asset, rather than to demolish it and start again”.

Mr Blackwell (pictured below) gave an extended interview to Southborough News in response to the detailed account published last week that spelt out the Hub project team’s vision of the development.

blackwell-v2

Listen to the first ten minutes of  Cllr Blackwell’s interview by clicking this arrow below or else read the full transcript further down:

 

Q: Cllr Oakford said to me that he was now 100% confident that the Hub as currently designed with the polycarbonate cladding and the end of the Victoria Hall WILL happen. Do you agree? Is he right?

A: I’m not sure how he can be that confident. Obviously, Tunbridge Wells (Planning Authority) have said that they support the application but the statutory bodies – the statutory consultees – Sports England, have said they are very unhappy. And it’s not just the loss of playing fields, it’s the reprovision, it is the levelling off, it’s the retaining walls, it’s the changing rooms that don’t meet FA regulations. There’s a whole list of things as long as your arm that they are unhappy about.

There’s also the Theatres Trust, who I have spoken to in the last few days, and they’re very unhappy about the way that they perceive that they have been ignored and that their comments were misconstrued to the planning committee. They have also written in to express their dismay at the way things have been handled. So, it could yet go to the Secretary of State. I know it is a slim, outside chance.

And then we’ve got the finances. We haven’t got any. We don’t know what it’s going to cost. We don’t know where the money is coming from. We’ve seen a bit of the risk register. We only got it in our last meeting. But one of the things that is a risk is the possible 20% devaluation in the land values. Now, if we get 20% less money than we are expecting for this project, we are definitely going to need to cut our cloth accordingly.

Q: That’s because of the BREXIT vote?

A: Exactly. And this might seem incredible to people who don’t come along to the council meetings, but none of the councillors – apart from Cllr Oakford and Cllr Lester – have even seen the figures. We are not allowed to see them, because apparently they are commercially confidential.

hub-nov-pics-1Q: So, what you are saying is that you don’t know whether the amount of money raised from selling the land for housing will actually pay for the buildings that have now been promised.

A: We don’t know at all. One other thing that is very alarming is in the business plan. If people go online on the Southborough Town Council website to find it, they will find that most of it is just blank. But it talks about the VAT situation. I am not a financial expert by any means, but the idea at the moment is that the VAT will go through KCC’s books. That means we save 20%. Now, if they take on a couple of other projects, which KCC said they are planning to do, they won’t have that exemption. It will be used up on the other developments.

The only other way that Southborough could afford that – and obviously our VAT exemption is tiny – is if we run it as a Trust model. Now, the catch is that we don’t get a council office and we can’t derive any profit for the Town for it. Basically, we will not have any involvement in our own facility.

small-side-of-stageQ: You have said the RVH could be saved – it could be refurbished, but Cllr Oakford has said the experts have looked at it and it is just too expensive an option. He says it is just not viable to refurbish the Royal Victoria Hall. Hasn’t he got the evidence from the experts to prove him right?

A: Well unfortunately, we have never looked at that option. Even though, early on, that was what the majority of the people wanted to see – a repurposed Hall or a restoration of the Hall. But that was dispensed with fairly early on. There were no figures to support that.

Now, we know there are some things that need sorting out. The façade at the front looks awful. That was some Conservative councillors in the 1970s who thought modernisation was the way forward then as well. So that needs some time and money spending on it.

The toilets at the front need some time and money spending on it as well. But most of the Hall is pretty much in tact. For a building that is over 100 years old, it has survived remarkably well. It is a really good quality build. It is fit for purpose. It is weather tight.

It hasn’t got any structural issues. It just seems a much better idea to work with an existing asset rather than to demolish it and start again and also, loss of green playing fields and traffic etc.

p1100528Q: And so on the structural soundness of the Hall, Cllr Oakford told me that one of the walls of the Hall was bowed and he said that was one of the actual walls of the Victoria Hall. Is that correct?

A: That is not correct and Cllr Oakford knows that, because he is the Chair of the Finance and General Purposes Committee. We have got retaining walls and that (bowed) wall is part of a garage at the back of the property, but it is set apart from the Victoria Hall.

Q: Is it part of the extension?

A: No, it’s not part of the extension.

Q: So, the wall that he was talking about, the bowed wall, which he told me was a reason to demolish the Hall because it is not straight any more, you are saying that he is wrong.

A: I can categorically say that he is wrong. And if people, want to check out, it is in the public domain because all of those reports were commissioned by Southborough Town Council. When we had our Fire Safety report, it was one of the issues because one of the Fire Exits, the supporting legs of the Fire Exit, sat on that wall. And even without that wall, we were still able to operate a full Hall and meet all the fire safety requirements.

Q: So your position on the safety and the structural soundness of the Hall is that it could be used again?

A: Of course, the fact is that it was available. We had sell out performances. This idea that we weren’t able to operate due to Health and Safety or insurance is just nonsense. Because we wouldn’t – as a local authority – be able to rent out a Hall and have packed out matinee performances for a pantomime if we weren’t able to do things that we have to do. So the fire regulations, health and safety, seating, we had to deal with all of those things before we could actually hire it out

seatsQ: You mean for that last pantomime nearly two years ago.

A: Yes. Which again, Cllr Oakford knows. He was there.

Q: Cllr Oakford also says that these problems of the nasty smells in the Hall are to do with blocked drains and he says all those pipes run under the floor of the Victoria Hall, which means to mend them you would need to dig up the floor of the Hall, which means it is so expensive, it is better to start again.

A: We definitely need some investment in the drains and the toilets, which is in the front of House area. I don’t see how the drains could go under the main Hall. I don’t know where that idea would have come from. The Hall needs some money spending on it. I would think £250,000 would probably not be unreasonable.

Q: And how much do you think building a new Hall from scratch is going to be costing?

A: Well, of course, we haven’t seen the figures. But one of our councillors has done some calculations working out land values. I think we are looking at around £ 3 million for the actual development.

hub-nov-pic-2Q: Does that include the new medical centre as well?

A: That’s everything. It’s as cheap as chips. We are getting a sports pavilion, a library, it is supposed to do absolutely everything. They are spending minimal amounts of money, which – as people have pointed out – that’s why it looks so cheap. It is a polycarbonate Hub. It’s concrete tiles. It’s a pre-fabricated building. The same kind of thing you see right across the country from Milton Keynes to South Croydon.

Q: Another point that Cllr Oakford made was – when I suggested they could put some new buildings, say a new library and medical centre on the derelict land that the project has now bought, while leaving the Royal Victoria Hall as it is – or possibly be handed to a Trust for theatre enthusiasts to run – he said Kent County Council are backing this project, they’ve put a lot of effort into it and what they wanted was THIS design of building. In other words, a Hub with a foyer so you get all this footfall with the medical centre and the library, all in one place. They say that is the most viable form of building.

A: I think the model that KCC is following is what they call their “transformation processes”, which is where you take existing buildings, you sell off the land, you put them on one site, you save money in that way. So the library site, we have a fantastic library (we need some money spending on it because KCC have spent absolutely no money on it in the last 20 years) but it is a great little facility. It has a separate area for children. It is very well supported. The borrowing numbers are some of the best in West Kent. But they are going to sell it off (for housing). It is about £ 1 million that they are going to realise. That £ 1 million is NOT going into the Hub project, that is going towards the KCC books.

Shock Resignation of Conservative Town Councillor

The local estate agent Bill LeGrys resigned yesterday from the Town Council saying he was fed up with the infighting in the council over the proposed Southborough Hub.

There will now be a by-election in Southborough North before the end of January.

Mr LeGrys, who is a Conservative, told Southborough News: “The Hub is being used as a political weapon. The 18 Town councillors should just sit down round a table and get it sorted for the people of Southborough.”

legrys-3Mr LeGrys has been convinced by the case made by Kent County Council that a new build and demolition of the Royal Victoria Hall is the best option, but he recognises that views in the town are still divided, arguing: “Maybe the best way forward is to have a referendum on whether we want to keep the Royal Victoria Hall or not”.

Mr LeGrys accepted there were still significant issues with the scheme that has been worked up by the County Council, including the materials and lack of bar facilities and theatre dressing rooms.

Mr LeGrys said councillors should be working for the good of the town and not their personal benefit and he felt Southborough’s main shopping street was struggling and desperately needed the new Hub to be a popular meeting place in the centre of the town.

He said he would make a fuller statement over the weekend.

Mr LeGrys didn’t attend last night’s Full Council meeting, which was an argumentative and lengthy event.  The agenda published in advance had suggested a plan for the immediate demolition of the Royal Victoria Hall would be discussed, but after two hours it was announced that no debate on this could take place due to documentation not being available early enough.

Members of the public who had waited until 9pm for this news expressed their anger that their time had been wasted.  The motion calling for the demolition of the Hall and Council offices – even before any money has been raised from selling the fields – will now be debated at December’s full council meeting.

This evening Cllr Nick Blackwell, the leader of the Labour group on Southborough Town Council told me he thought the controversy over Hub project could affect the by-election result even though he said the seat would normally be a “shoo in” for the Conservatives.

Mr Blackwell said: “Lots of people in the Town are very unhappy about the way things are proceeding and the fact that their views are being ignored. We had the recent SEAM campaign where we had an unprecedented number of people responding to the Planning Application – over 200- and we had thousands of people sign the petition as well. The Conservative group need to show that they are actually listening and responding to the concerns in the Town”.

I asked Mr Blackwell if there might be one opposition candidate to the Conservatives, who thinks that the Hub shouldn’t go ahead as planned and the Victoria Hall should be saved.

Mr Blackwell replied: “It will be interesting to see what happens. It will be 10 members of the public to call the by-election. I think it will be unlikely if it’s before Christmas….I know the Liberals will be keen to contest the seat. It may be that one of the local pressure groups also wants to put up a candidate. We will have to see what transpires”.

Cllr Oakford 2: Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall “to Run Hub Theatre”

The Southborough Town Councillor who’s been driving the Hub project says he hopes the Assembly Hall theatre in Tunbridge Wells will run the replacement for the old Royal Victoria Hall in Southborough for at least three years.

Cllr Peter Oakford repeatedly insisted that the Victoria Hall was “not viable” and that last winter’s official consultation gave him a mandate to push ahead with its demolition.

In the official consultation just 214 people (that is 58 % out of 369 respondents) supported the RVH complete demolition “new build” compared with the 1,300  (of which 850 people were from Southborough) who have signed a petition in recent weeks opposing the current Hub scheme.

 

You can hear the second part of the interview by clicking on the link above.

Question: Could you give us a timescale on it?  You say you are 100% confident that central government will not view this as a nationally important scheme, and so planning permission would be confirmed, but presumably you have to actually sell the land.  How long is all that going to take?

Answer from Cllr Oakford (pictured below): All of that work has been going on in the background. All of the land will be offered for tender in the very near future. I don’t have an exact date, but I know that the group that sells the land in the real estate department are working on that. We have our agreements so Kent County Council will “call in” all of the land into their ownership and start developing the project and that’s all down for the end of the first quarter next year.

oakford-newThe site will be cleared in preparation for that. And I would most certainly hope that everything is underway by the middle of next year. Obviously, there will be different things that will come into play, but that’s what we are working on at this moment in time.
Q: So everything will be flattened by next summer and then by what time will the actual Hub be open?

A: Probably the middle of 2018. 18 months away.

Q: There has been criticism not necessarily of the logic or the facilities of the Hub, but the design. The fact that it is – as they said in the planning meeting – “uncompromisingly modern”. Why did it have to be like that?

A: I am not a designer. I am not an architect.  And I’ve got myself into trouble before with comments on this. I think design is very subjective. What I think looks good, other people may not like. It is the same with art.  It’s the same with sculptures. And buildings very much fall into that category. Unfortunately, the leaflet that was distributed had one of the very first iterations of the design on it. And as was pointed out by the planners during the planning meeting, that was slightly misleading because the other drawings were quite a lot different than the one that was put out.

hub-nov-pic-2I think the latest drawings have dealt with a number of the criticisms that were made of the plastic box. The finish has still got to be finalised and that will depend on the revenue from the land. There are some of us that would hope that there is some red brick.  But, at the end of the day, the design is subjective. I would be guided by what looks best by the professionals in that field.

My focus from day one working on the project is that whatever is built has to be financially viable. It has to be there for the future.  And it has to stand on its own two feet, without having the subsidies paid through council tax that has happened for many many years for the buildings that are currently there.

We were at one time spending up to £ 55,000 in one single year just to keep the Royal Victoria Hall alive and everytime we did more work on it, it bit back and something else went wrong. And it got to the stage where financially it just wasn’t viable. That cannot happen with this new concept.

It has to be self-financing. It has to be self sufficient. It has to be able to carry itself onto the future.

(15’57”)
Q: So, how will the bookings work in the new theatre? Because, before you rang up Southborough Town Council Clerk  to see if it was available and she looked at who you were and if health and safety was met and it was booked out. Is that going to be different in the new arrangements?

A: Most certainly. Nothing has been formalised at this moment in time. But what we are currently doing is we are working with Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and the people who run the theatre on their behalf and what we are looking to do is for the first period of time, perhaps two or three years, have a contract that the Assembly Halls will actually run the theatre in Southborough.

So they will use all of their infrastructure – their box office – they will book the acts, they will put the shows on, they will supply the technical skills and technical staff. And we will work through that for the first two or three years.

We will then be able to work out a much more robust financial package and then the idea is that we would probably like to put the operation out to some form of tender for a charitable trust or a theatre group to come in and take over the management. One thing that we have all agreed already is that it will not be run by Southborough Town Council.

Q: And you say that the Assembly Hall will bring in their expertise and their time. Surely that is all going to cost money. Is that not going to cost more than the £ 50,000 a year that we were spending on the Victoria Hall.

A: No because the Assembly Hall will be managing the new theatre as a subset of the Assembly Hall. So they will be booking the acts and making sure that it is financially viable.

Q: So, for the first couple of years they have agreed to do this without a revenue cost to taxpayers in Southborough?

A: There may well be a small subsidy for the first three years – a decreasing subsidy, but the idea is that – at the end of three years – there won’t be any subsidy paid for by the council. But the one thing that we do know is that it will be substantially below the subsidies that  had to be paid for the Royal Victoria Hall.

Currently the manager of the Assembly Halls is working on a business plan for that and developing a proposal to bring in to the board to have a look at which we would hope to see in the first quarter of next year.

(18’32”)

Q: And obviously these local theatres, like the Assembly Hall and particularly the Trinity did rely on that volunteer support. They rely mainly on hundreds of volunteers. Are you worried by the fact that a lot of the people who volunteered in the Royal Victoria Hall are still not supporting the new designs and the new theatre.

A: Unfortunately, as I said, we will never please everybody all of the time. the format that we had for the Royal Victoria Hall just wasn’t working. It was being utilised about 30% of the time. It wasn’t flexible and it only suited one type of operation. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to please everybody. But we have been able to work with a number of professional theatre organisations including Charcoal Blue – a well known theatre consultant – in order  to develop – what we hope – will be a much better offering for the public.

And I would hope that some of the groups that have utilised the old building will come back and utilise it again. But all the bookings will be made through the Assembly Halls.

Q: You say in 3 years, you want it actually to move to a local charitable trust, why not go to that for the Royal Victoria Hall? I am told there were people who wanted to do that and had some funding a couple of years ago. Wouldn’t that have been worth one last try for this building that has been there for 116 years?

A: We did an awful lot of work on the Royal Victoria Hall and we looked at lots of options for  it. But there wasn’t any way that the finances stacked up to make it pay. There was a group that put together a business plan, but their business plan said in the first year that the Royal Victoria Hall would make a profit. And that most of their finances were promises of money that would come in from groups or individuals. That money wasn’t in the bank and the risk was too high.

We had a one time opportunity to work with the Borough Council and the County Council to pull this entire project up. Remember this has been going on for over 20 years. I have been trying to pull the three councils together to make this work for over 10 years.

We were told in no uncertain terms that so much money had been spent in the past in trying to pull this project together in different ways, this was our last opportunity. If we hadn’t made this work, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Southborough would have been left high and dry.

That Kent County Council would have disposed of their assets and they would have moved forward. Tunbridge Wells would have done the same thing. And we would have lost the opportunity to pull everything together and actually develop the heart that our town really needs.


(21’20”)

Q: And there have been people signing a petition. How are you going to win them round and convince them that when the next election comes that you’ve done the right thing. 

A: I don’t see this has got anything to do with an election. This is about doing what’s right for our town. I have always said that this is what I want to do. It is up to the people. If you were aiming that question at me, if they elect me that’s entirely up to them. If they don’t, I still believe I’ve done the right thing, working with my colleagues to drive this project forward.

I think in 5 years time, people will be very happy with what we have developed. It is unfortunate that you can’t please everybody with things that you do and there will always be a small group that likes what’s there.  And I can totally understand that. If people have memories and they have worked with those buildings and seen shows in those buildings over the years.

But times do move forward and unfortunately that building just isn’t viable and I know people will disagree with that.

(22’25”)

Q: But there are a lot of other Victorian theatres still going aren’t there.

A: There are. But that one needed a huge amount. Hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on it in order to do anything. And the only way to generate any cash, would have been to sell the piece of the land that we are selling.  The only way to get the agreement to get the 50% clawback reinvested in the project was to do what we are doing.


hub-allQ: Why weren’t Kent County Council happy with putting a new library and council offices in the empty old Tesco land and leaving the Royal Victoria Hall as it is – to see if it could be made viable for a bit longer given that there seem to be people who believe it could have been made viable.

A: Well. We have been trying to make it viable for an awful long time. For 10 years that I’ve been involved in and a lot more years before that. And I think the time had come where all 3 local authorities had spent a lot of money doing that. And so the decision was made we’ve got to do something different. If Kent is going to reinvest their land they wanted their new library. They wanted a library of a certain type in a certain design. And it was all part of the negotiation in order to get our project move forward.


Q: Could there have been a referendum just to endorse it, just to bring round people, because when people feel something has been done without their consent, it’s not necessarily the best way to start an exciting new project?

A: We did a full 8 week consultation with open days in more than one location, we had exhibition going on at the library going on with officers from Kent and Tunbridge Wells Council there during the day. There was an online consultation. Everybody had the opportunity to go online and complete a questionaire and to make comments what they wanted or what they didn’t want and to vote for either an option that retained part of the Royal Victoria Hall or an option that knocked it down and we started again afresh. 85% approximately said knock it down and start again.

And I know that there’s an argument that only so many hundred people responded to the consultation.


Q: It was less than 400 people wasn’t it?

A: Everybody had the opportunity to do so.


Q: But also they didn’t have the option of refurbishing the whole building. Why didn’t you put that as one of the specific options?

A: It wasn’t a viable option.

Cllr Oakford 1: “Confident” of Overcoming Sport England Objection

Councillor Peter Oakford, who’s been the main driving force behind the Southborough Hub project, says he is now “100 %” confident that the scheme will happen, despite the fact that central government is now considering whether to set up a public inquiry.

Cllr Oakford (below) was speaking to Southborough News just as the statutory body Sport England and the Football Association reaffirmed their opposition to the current scheme due to the loss of the football pitches and – what they say – is a substandard proposed replacement pavillion for the soccer players.

oakford-new

Central government’s National Planning Casework Unit says members of the public can write to them to indicate why they think Tunbridge Wells Borough Council was wrong to approve the Hub and why they want the Secretary of State to “call this in” for the evidence to be assessed by an inspector at a public inquiry.  Around a dozen planning applications a year nationally are called in under this procedure.

Anyone with comments on the planning issues that they want to send to the National Planning Casework Unit needs to state the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council reference number (16/06081/HYBRID) and that the development is in the town of Southborough in Kent, with comments emailed to:  npcu@communities.gsi.gov.uk

Despite Mr Oakford insisting on Friday morning that the issue of the replacement football pitches was “resolved”, Dylan Evans of the Football Association said later on Friday “the pitch issues have not been resolved”.

Mr Evans said he was aware of a Council plan to mitigate the pitch losses, but no details had been provided so the FA position was “unchanged on this matter”.

The FA statement said: “We have objected due to the loss of football pitches in keeping with Sport England policy on playing fields. In keeping with the policy, the principles of improving the pitches as a way of increasing the playing capacity on the site to mitigate the loss could form part of the solution, together with a secure, fit for purpose pavilion with sufficient security of tenure for the club. However, we have not received any detailed plans to our satisfaction and therefore we continue to support Sport England in their objection.”

Local people have queried the idea that the land can be easily levelled to create a total of five large pitches on the northern Ridgewaye fields on the proposed scheme below:

pitches-new-crop

You can listen here to the audio of the first part of Mr Oakford’s 25 minute interview with Southborough News:

This is a transcript of the first half of that interview given by Cllr Peter Oakford to Martin Webber of Southborough News:

Question: How confident are you now that the Southborough Hub scheme is going to go ahead, after being supported by the planning committee but there are still questions.

Answer: Extremely confident.  In fact I am 100% confident it will still go through. We have a package of material all ready that’s on its way to the Secretary of State asking whether or not they would like to call this in.  We are working very closely with the FA and with Sport England. We have resolved the issue around the football pitches, because working with the football club and the work we are going to do they actually have the opportunity to gain two extra junior pitches above what they already have.

And the only issue we have now is around the football pavillion.  The football pavillion was designed by the football club. We are very happy as the football club are very happy with what we are offering.

Unfortunately the FA have come back and they want to increase the standards and add a few more changing rooms and add some more showers and really build it to the level of a premier league type changing room.  So we are currently working with the football club and the FA on that issue and we are pretty sure we will get that resolved before much longer.


Q: Can I come back on the issue of the fields because various local people have questioned whether that area where you want to put the replacement football pitches really can be flattened in the way that was described.

A: A report is being commissioned at this moment in time.  The topography experts have actually looked at the land and we believe that – yes – it can be done.
p1100789Q: So you have had independent surveyors actually measuring the heights of the land and checking it out?

A: Absolutely.  All the work is being done now at this moment in time and the funds have been made available, so – yes – we are very confident that that can be done.


Q: And for the people who say – well yes you can mark out new pitches having flattened the land – but there will still be a loss of recreation space.  Isn’t that an issue? Isn’t that why Sport England are still objecting?

A: I think what people have forgotten is – a couple of years ago – Tunbridge Wells Borough Council had the whole of the Ridgewaye playing fields zoned for a new school and a new housing estate.  And Southborough Town Council really fought back and said we are not going to do that. We own that piece of land.

And the compromise was the small area of land, which is mainly shrubland now that is going to be used for this development was the only part of the fields that were left under the zoning for future housing development.  So we have already saved a huge amount of the playing fields that were going to be developed.


Q: But doesn’t Southborough Town Council own it?

A: Southborough Town Council own it, but Kent County Council have a 50% clawback on any revenue generated from that land. But yes it is in the ownership of Southborough Town Council.


Q: So could the Borough have built the houses and the school if the Town Council hadn’t wanted it to?

A: Yes, they could have compulsory purchased the land and moved forward.
p1100780Q: So you say you are 100% confident the scheme will go ahead, what are the benefits that you see for the people of Southborough?

A: My personal feeling having lived here for very many years is that Southborough doesn’t have a heart.  I know that whatever we do will never please everybody, but I think we are pleasing a large majority at this moment in time. What we are doing is creating a heart to the town where we have the council offices and the old hall at this moment in time. Unfortunately the old Hall has over the years been changed and messed around with by previous occupants and the lovely old Victorian wrought iron frontage that was on there  and other bits have been removed, so it doesn’t have a lot of its history left with it.


img_0831Q: But the actual theatre part is still there, which is what the actors seem – on the planning comments – to have commented on in terms of the wonderful acoustics and that generations of their family have been there.  There is still a big attachment to it, is there not?

There may be by some, but not by others. We went out to a full consultation and those that responded to the consultation over the eight week period, 85 per cent said “no” lets have something brand new.  We have worked very closely with a number of professionals.  And one thing that has come through quite loud and clear through the work that’s been done is that amateur dramatic groups have a very different opinion than professionals.

And so the opinion of the likes of the STAG theatre, Charcoal Blue – the theatre consultants – and of Trinity Theatre are different than some of the amateur dramatic groups.  And obviously, we have gone with the opinion of the professionals in most cases.


Q: And have they all said that the old theatre couldn’t be rennovated, couldn’t be kept?

A: Anything could be done.  But when it was looked at.  When you start renovating a building, you have to build it up to new building standards as I’m sure you area aware and what that would have meant is you would have been left with the 4 walls and absolutely nothing else.  Not even the same roof that’s on there at the moment and we would have had to start all over again.
p1100528Q: So, what exactly does it fail at at the moment, because I know that in the planning documents, it said that the walls of the Hall were falling down and some people questioned that.  What wall was actually falling down?

A: No, it’s not all the walls that are falling down. There is one wall at the back that is bowed, under the pressure.


Q: Is that of the actual Hall, or the extension?

A: No, that’s of the Hall. And there was a wall at the side that had to be taken down where the fire exit is and the fire exit had closed.  But there’s lots of other things that are wrong with that Hall.  The drainage has collapsed underneath it and it needs constantly rodding through and that is the sewerage, not just the drainage, and that was rather unpleasant. There’s Health and Safety aspects.  There’s all sorts of things that are wrong with it.


Q: Can you just spell out the Health and Safety, because – again – hundreds of people have said – the Hall still looks fine to me, and so they are still puzzled.

A: All of this is in the public domain. There are reports that have been done, so there are lots of issues with the Hall that need to be addressed. And that’s “by the bye”, because the decision has been made now that the Royal Victoria Hall will be demolished and a brand new theatre will be built in its place.


Q: And how do you think this new “heart” that you explain will work in practice with all these different facilities in the same place?

A: I think it brings all the community aspects in one place. We have to remember there is going to be a new super medical centre there and my understanding is that it will be one of the latest medical centres where you can have x-rays and minor ops and that type of thing, which is desperately needed. And if it wasn’t going ahead, the NHS have said there is no guarantee there is going to be medical services in Southborough and High Brooms going forward, which means residents would have to go to Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells.
hub-nov-pic-2Q: Do they not have to provide services within a certain range of a large community like Southborough?

A: I am only repeating what the NHS have said.  They’ve said without it there is no guarantee that they will be there in the future. So that the heart of the town will have a brand new modern library that offers all of the facilties that a modern library should do.  It will have a new “heart” of some retail space. It will have the new multi-functional Hall and I think that’s what’s very important.  The old Victoria Hall could either be a theatre or a Hall. It took a couple of days to change it.

The new one will have all the modern technology so a flat Hall can be developed on the press of a button. The seats will go back into the wall.  The floor will level up with the stage and so we will have a modern flat hall that can be utilised by a wider element of the  community.

Then of course, there will be new council offices. There will be new football pavillion and there will be some retail space.

Q: Just going back to the medical centre, I think a lot of people are enthusiastic about getting new facilities, but some people again have queried whether it should be up to the parish council to put up a building for a doctors’ practice which they view as a private practice. Should the money not come from the doctors’ practice or the NHS, rather than the parish council putting up a building and then renting it out for income later.

A: Well the first thing is that the parish council isn’t doing this. This is a 3 way project with Kent County Council, Tunbridge Wells and Southborough Town Council. If it wasn’t for the fact that Kent County Council have agreed to come into the project with certain terms and conditions which includes reinvesting their clawback on the land, then this project wouldn’t happen anyway.


Q: Could you just explain that a bit more?

A: When Southborough Town Council purchased the Ridgewaye land, Kent County Council have a 50% clawback on any future sale value, so 50% of any revenue that’s generated from the sale goes back into the coffers of Kent County Council.  I was able to go in and negotiate with Kent County Council as part of pulling all the three local authorities together. And I negotiated two things with them.  One is that they would include the Ridgewaye units in this project.  And at the time, they were looking to dispose of the Ridgewaye units.  And the second thing is that they would reinvest the clawback from the land sale which means that goes back into the pot towards developing the Hub, on the condition that a new library was part of that facility.

Q: And it says in the business plan that’s been issued this week that they (KCC) will pay a “peppercorn rent” for the library, but then the advantage for people in Southborough is that they are guaranteed to keep a library, is that the thinking?

A: Absolutely, yes.
Q: So was the clawback by Kent County Council indefinite or was there a time limit on the clawback?

A: No, that’s indefinite.
Q: So, the business plan was released this week and various people have been asking what revenue do you expect to get from the medical centre, from the theatre and hall hirings out but the business plan that was issued didn’t seem to have many numbers in it. Are you going to issue another one with more numbers in it?

A: At this moment in time, there is a lot of commercial sensitivity around the finances. Let me explain that.

From day one, this project has to be self-financing through the sale of the piece of land that’s going to be used for residential. If we say it is going to cost X to build the Hub, whoever is going to buy that land, knows exactly how much money we need and that will limit the offers that are placed on that piece of land. So I am sure people understand that we don’t want to say that the Hub is going to cost X, because the value of the land is X.

What we want to do is maximise the value of the land.  The more money that we get from the land, the more enhancements we can put into the Hub as we build it. So that’s the reason that – at this moment in time – there is commercial sensitivity around the overall construction costs.

Around the running costs, there’s very similar aspects to the finances. There are a number of retail units that are being developed. There’s a coffee shop that’s being developed. The finances include the revenues that we expect to get for the lease costs for the retail units, for the coffee shop and for all the other aspects. Again, if  that goes into the public domain, when we put out the retail space for tender, everybody knows the level of revenue that we need to get to make the project work. Therefore, until we get to that stage, we don’t want to put those finances into the public domain and I would hope most people would understand that reasoning.

Is it a “Hill” or a “Slope” on the Northern Ridgewaye Fields?

Another dispute over basic facts has erupted between supporters and opponents of Southborough Council’s Hub plans – this time over the shape of the Ridgewaye fields.

The Borough’s Planning officer, Lynda Middlemiss, told the planning committee on Wednesday that there was a “hill” in the centre of the northern part of the Ridgewaye fields, which could be levelled off to create replacement soccer pitches for those lost to the new housing that is funding the Hub buildings.

Several local people this weekend described her descriptions as a “fantasy”, arguing instead that the northern Ridgewaye fields (pictured below) are basically flat, but slope away steeply towards the Ridgewaye lane. They argue that levelling would require planning permission for retaining walls to hold back earth so the sloping area can be flattened.

p1100769But Lynda Middlemiss told the committee: “There is absolutely no intention and no need to provide any retaining walls, simply a question of moving earth from one part of the pitches where they are presently raised to the area where the land slopes away.”

After last week’s committee meeting, objectors continue to dispute a large number of assertions by the Hub supporters including over the state of the Royal Victoria Hall, and whether the proposed new soccer pavillion and theatre are better or worse than the existing provision.

The playing field issue was discussed in detail because Ms Middlemiss had to ensure the committee wasn’t swayed by the “outright objection” to the scheme by Sport England and the Football Association. In the event, the planning committee thought Sport England’s concerns had been dealt with and they accepted the planning officer’s argument that new pitches could be easily created to replace those lost due to the new housing.

A plan of the varying descriptions of the northern Ridgewaye fields is below:

ridgewaye

Ms Middlemiss stated at the meeting: “The important thing to understand is that there is no – from the proposals – there will be no loss of playing pitch capacity in terms of the number and types of pitches that could be provided on the site. There’s obviously a loss of land that is currently in playing field use. That’s always been envisaged in the Site Allocation Local Plan. But in terms of the impact that that has on local clubs to use the space as playing pitches, the proposals show that there won’t be any reduction in playing pitches”.

The planning officers report concluded: “The new sports pavilion, improvements to the playing pitch levels in parts of the site to increase of the playable area of the adjacent playing fields will increase the playing capacity and enhance the facilities offered here”.

Because Sport England are continuing to object, the matter is now referred to central government.  It is not known if officials there at the National Planning Casework Unit will think the issues raised will be serious enough to “call in” the application so it is considered by a public enquiry.

If central government planners decide they don’t want to intervene, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council could grant planning permission in the next few weeks, although the Hub project team say that no demolition is likely to start until “the early summer.”

No professional survey appears to have been undertaken in coming to the conclusions on the pitches. Below is a view looking north over the top of the Yew Tree allotments, with the Ridgewaye lane and hedge on the right of the picture:

p1100780

The FA made it clear they would only be satisfied if the replacement soccer pitches were provided before the two junior pitches were removed from use due to the building work.  The Council Hub team estimate the levelling work to create new pitches would be done within 18 months.

Below is the existing layout of pitches on the Ridgewaye and Yew Tree fields, which Ms Middlemiss described as “2 senior pitches…4 Youth pitches…2 junior pitches and 4 mini-pitches:

pitches-old-crop

Below is one of the proposed layouts of pitches after the loss of the two junior pitches to the far south west of the site when the housing is built:

pitches-new-crop

Former Southborough mayor, Nick Blackwell, who was one of the objectors who spoke at the planning committee, told Southbrough News: “What was remarkable was the last-minute scrabbling around by the Project team to try and appease Sports England”.

Mr Blackwell, who is still a Labour town councillor, continued: “Why, when the plans have always included the loss of at least two football pitches did they submit proposals in the last few days that looked like they had been sketched out on the back of an envelope? They were unverified and failed to include even basic indications of size and allocation. It is obvious why Sports England remain unconvinced and are continuing with their outright objection.”

Meanwhile, the latest computerised drawings of the Community Hub suggest the building is taking on a more orange coloured palate (see below):

hub-nov-pics-1
Mr Blackwell said: “For a planning officer to describe the theatre as a windowless box again does not inspire confidence in the proposed community space. Substantial points regarding the current state of the RVH, which meets all the necessary Health and Safety requirements, fire safety regulations and is structurally sound were barely mentioned and no clarifications were made regarding the errors submitted in the planning application”.
hub-nov-pic-2

Mr Blackwell concluded: “Going forward we will now need to consider how we can best support Sports England in their objections. We will do everything we can to make sure this development does not become another, later-regretted, eyesore in our Borough.”

Meanwhile, Cllr Peter Oakford (pictured below), who’s has driven the project forward over several years has told the Kent on Sunday newspaper that the new theatre would include state-of-the-art equipment and a flexible hall and open space that could be used by the community for everything from weddings to live concerts.

oakford

Mr Oakford said: “To modernise the theatre, by law we’d need to completely bring it up to modern standards and that means everything but its four walls would have to be stripped down, costing a lot more money than knocking it down, so the easiest thing was to give the town a brand new theatre.”

Mr Oakford, who is from the Conservative Party, said the proposal would in fact increase the provision of football pitches on the site – something he says Sport England was unaware of when submitting its objection.  He said: “We have worked to level off the entire field which means we actually get two more pitches than we currently have and the club is going to gain a state-of-the-art pavilion”.

Sport England says it was aware of the replacement pitch proposals but not enough work was done to see if the scheme was viable and so it was maintaining its objection.

The main Kent on Sunday paper contains an extended piece with Mr Oakford and a shortened version is available online at:

http://bit.ly/2fOJ8vY

The full article can also be found by turning to page 12 of the digital pdf style version:

http://bit.ly/2fPyt2q

p1100765

Southborough News will provide a full transcript of last Wednesday’s Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Planning Committee meeting (pictured above) that voted 11-0 to approve the Hub plans, so readers can decide for themselves how well all the issues were debated.

This link sends you to the transcript – there are still some gaps in the 1 1/2 hour recordinng as of Sunday 13th November. UPDATE WEDNESDAY: I have now also posted the audio on the following page, although the sound quality is not brilliant.

Click here:

https://southborough-news.com/planning-committee-2016/

Hub plans win over Tunbridge Wells Planning Committee

Central government planners are set to decide the fate of the Southborough Hub after the planning committee of Tunbridge Wells council voted by 11 to 0 with one abstention to approve the plans.

Councillors usually follow advice of planning officers who argued strongly for the scheme at Wednesday night’s meeting.

Speakers from the Stag theatre in Sevenoaks, the treasurer of the Ridgewaye football club, the St Andrew’s medical centre and Ian Kinghorn from the Southborough Society spoke at the meeting in favour of the scheme.  The speaker from the Stag Theatre was the General Manager, Andrew Eyre, who’s also a local Conservative District Councillor (pictured below).

andrew-eyre

But Sport England are still objecting to the loss of recreation space and “sub-standard” replacement soccer pavillion so the borough lose their power to decide the outcome. It is not clear how long the process of referral to central government will take.

The man who has pushed the current Hub plans to their current stage, Cllr Peter Oakford said afterwards he was “ecstatic”. He said Southborough could now “move forward for the next generation.”  Cllr Oakford is on the Southborough Town Council, the Borough Council and Kent County Council, but didn’t have a vote at the planning meeting.

Afterwards, Cllr Heasman (Conservative), who represents the Pantiles & St Mark’s Ward and who voted for the demolition of the Royal Victoria Hall said he knew lots of people in Southborough and the “silent majority” wanted a new building. In the meeting, he said the Royal Victoria Hall “was not a pretty building.”

Cllr Dianne Hill (Labour), who didn’t have a vote as she is not on the planning committee, said “I’m not surprised but it is very disappointing the people of Southborough are being ignored. It was acknowledged by some members of the committee that the consultation was flawed. We are pleased that Sport England upheld their objection to protect the sports fields.”

trinity-laban

The picture (from google maps) above illustrates what the centre of Southborough may feel like after the Hub is built.  This is the polycarbonate clad Trinity Laban Dance Studio in Deptford.  Tunbridge Wells council’s Urban Design expert, Alan Legg, referred to this building in his upbeat assessment of the proposed Southborough Hub designs. Some of the Hub will be clad in this material.

All the councillors who had a vote on the planning committee on the application were from the Conservative Party. Cllr Joy Podbury representing Rusthall abstained. The following eleven Borough Councillors all supported the planning application:

Cllr Mrs Julia Soyke (Chairman)   of Speldhurst & Bidborough
Cllr Barry Noakes (Vice-Chairman) of Goudhurst & Lamberhurst
Cllr Godfrey Bland of Hawkhurst & Sandhurst
Cllr Mrs Barbara Cobbold of Broadwater
Cllr Tom Dawlings of Benenden & Cranbrook
Cllr Sarah Hamilton of Paddock Wood (East)
Cllr Lawrence Heasman of Pantiles & St Mark’s
Cllr Carol Mackonochie of Capel
Cllr David Reilly of Pembury
Cllr Don Sloan  of Culverden
Cllr Mrs Elizabeth Thomas of Paddock Wood (West)

The two Southborough councillors on the Borough Council planning committee had been involved in the decision on Southborough Town Council, so each made a speech, but couldn’t take part in the decision making discussion among councillors or vote. They were Bob Backhouse (Conservative in favour) and Graham Munn (Labour against).

Multiple “Errors of Fact” in Planning Officers’ Report supporting Hub, say critics

The Southborough Environmental Action Movement (SEAM) says it has found multiple errors in the key report by Tunbridge Wells Planning Officers now being considered by councillors on the Tunbridge Wells Planning Committee, who vote on the Hub plans on Wednesday.

Brian Dury (pictured below) of SEAM said: “Having read Tuesday’s report from TWBC Planning Officers to the TWBC Planning Committee, we have found serious errors in the “facts” contained in that report which would invalidate the conclusion of the TWBC Planning Officers to recommend approval of the application. We will discuss the issues in detail before the Committee on Wednesday next week, but we are making you all aware now of some of the errors.”

brian-dury-2Meanwhile, the online petition against the current Hub plans that was organised by Mr Dury has now passed 1,200 people. For latest total see here:

http://bit.ly/2eDPwmR

Wednesday’s planning committee meeting at 5pm would normally be the end of the planning process. But because Sport England are maintaining their “outright objection” to the loss of soccer pitches on the Ridgewaye playing fields, the scheme can only be thrown out and not approved on Wednesday.

If Tunbridge Wells Planning Committee supports the application, the scheme will be reviewed in its entirety by central government planners. The civil servants in a unit within the government department dealing with local government (the National Planning Casework Unit) will decide whether to refer the issue to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid (pictured below).  And Mr Javid would then be the person to decide the fate of the scheme and the Royal Victoria Hall.

sajid_javid_16

Update 10am Tuesday 8 November: The number of official objections on the Tunbridge Wells planning website continues to grow and has now reached 230 named individuals or organisations.  There are 34 supporters of the Hub scheme.  Objections make up 87%.  The portal is still open for comments.  You need to email planning@tunbridgewells.gov.uk and give your full name and address and include the application number: 16/06081 hybrid.

In a new submission placed on the Tunbridge Wells Planning Portal, SEAM, declares that factual errors have caused the planning officers to misapply their planning policies.

SEAM highlights Para 10.19 of the officers’ report which refers to the new local SALP Policy AL/S02, which requires efforts are made to consider retaining the Royal Victoria Hall. SEAM argues that: “the demolition of the RVH is a choice made by councillors who have a preference for a new modern building. It is not something that has been forced upon them by the condition of the building. Therefore the planning officers are wrong to accept in 10.23 that “the policy requirement for the applicant to explore opportunities to retain and improve the Royal Victoria Hall has been complied with and the reasons why this option has not been pursued have been clearly explained””.

SEAM also quotes from Para 131 of the National National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which says local planning authorities should take account of “the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of heritage assets and….the positive contribution that conservation of heritage assets can make to sustainable communities including their economic vitality”.

The Planning Officers’ arguments were published at length in an article on this blog on Tuesday and a piece explaining why the Southborough Society supports the Hub was published on Thursday. The following comments in italics are taken directly from the latest SEAM submission opposing the current Hub plans:

A: ERRORS OF FACT

(1) “Iconic Building?”
Para 7.69 written by the TWBC Urban Design Officer says: “It is vitally important to create a sense of place and an identity for Southborough – a design of its time, iconic and stimulating.” The planning officers report contains no evidence that an “iconic” design has been achieved. And the idea that a building, which around 200 members of the public in their comments to planning have argued is wrong in mass, design and shape, can be made “iconic” simply by late variations to the cladding materials – as suggested by the TWBC planning officers – is clearly false.

The evidence provided in public comments from two independent architectural experts make it clear that the proposed design is a standard functional box of no architectural design merit.

hub-hallObjectors include:
(a) Michael Lees of the Tunbridge Wells architectural practice ARC-ML that specialises in masterplanning with clients from Berlin to Riga to London who says: “The poor quality design that has been submitted should not have got this far…The plan form of the proposed Hub building is gratuitous and gives form to “blocks” and a circular element which do nothing to give an important sense of place and enclosure to the associated public space around the building. Good design does not rely on gimmickry of this type.”

(b) Martin Jameson of London’s Serie architects with (clients in Singapore etc) and lecturer at the Architectural Association in London: “The design is weak. Clumsy massing – two boxes connected by a disc….Architects are now expected to work with existing buildings when taking on public work”.

Jason old RVH(2) Southborough’s Character

Para 10.57 of the planning officers’ report contains a fundamental error which underlies much of the reasoning in the report. It says that the Hub building will create a ‘sense of place within an area that currently lacks any coherent townscape character’.

Southborough town centre already has a distinctive local character. The buildings are largely brick built and Victorian and Edwardian. This character is recognised in para 4.5.4 of the TWBC Local Plan which specifically protects the commercial part of London Road because of features of architectural interest which contribute to the character of the local area.

p1100528(3) State of Royal Victoria Hall (RVH)

The planning officers’ appraisal states at 10.21 that the applicant has confirmed various issues including the following:
– Royal Victoria Hall has suffered “drains and walls collapsing”
– Various surveys highlighted various problems
– The current building is not flexible
– The seating is screwed down
– The building does not meet fire regulations
These 5 assertions are all incorrect.

No walls of the RVH have collapsed. Southborough Town Council (STC), who own the RVH, have supplied to Cllr Nick Blackwell the Boundary Wall condition report by the company BDR dated 17 April 2013. This clearly shows it is only the boundary wall and not any structural wall of the RVH that has any issues. The Royal Victoria Hall is generally agreed to be structurally sound and recent visitors all say it is in “remarkably good condition”.

According to Cllr Nick Blackwell, the issue with the drains concerns the plumbing of the 1970s toilets in the rebuilt front of the building, which is not structurally part of the main RVH hall. The drain issues will require some investment, but they have not “collapsed”.

The RVH was completely rewired five years ago, as explained in 2011 STC Annual Town Meeting Finance and General purposes committee (F&G) report, written by Cllr Peter Oakford (pictured below) who said: “The Victoria Theatre remains one of your council’s key focus areas and is an asset of our town that continues to thrive. The restoration has continued throughout the year with the re-wire and electrical work now completed at a cost of approximately £70,000, which was funded from reserves. The re-wire has designed to “future proof” the electrical requirements of the hall ensuring it will be ready for new equipment such as a PA and sound system, lighting etc.”

oakford

Mr Oakford went on to state in 2011: “A full fire safety audit has been completed; a new fire alarm installed and work is due to start replacing some of the ceilings in the back-up areas with fire proof materials. Some minor building works to the exterior of the building have been highlighted which will be completed this year.”

Cllr Nick Blackwell, who has been a member of the F&G committee on STC for the past two years, states that there has been no survey since 2011 that has identified any further essential works on the RVH demanding a substantial outlay.

The current RVH building has been used for dances, meetings and dinners over the past 116 years and so is clearly flexible.

The seating in place since the 1970s (which was partially screwed down) has already been removed as can be seen in recent photographs. (see below)

thumb_img_5505_1024 The health and safety inspector, David Menzies issued a risk assessment report, approving the new RVH movable seats in November 2014 and in his summary he says “this present arrangement allows STC to clearly demonstrate that they have eliminated the hazard associated with the use of the original folding seats by young children.” The hall was in use with these new seats for the December 2014 pantomime and fully insured with a small increase in premiums.

The building does still meet fire regulations. According to Cllr Blackwell, the RVH was passed by Jeffrey Lloyd of the Kent Fire and Rescue Service in June 2013.

(4) Views of Southborough Residents

Para 10.22 states that : “the local population voted overwhelmingly at the November 2015-January 2016 consultation exercise in favour of a new build”. This is incorrect.

The consultation in November 2015 offered just two design options:
(a) demolish the RVH (with outline plan worked up)
(b) Part demolish the RVH, including removing the balcony and cutting the seating capacity (with outline plan worked up)
(c) Unspecified other (no plan)
The people who wanted to retain a refurbished RVH in tact were not given that as an explicit option and so mainly felt they had been ignored and did not participate. The option to refurbish the RVH had been the most popular single option in the previous consultations.

An expert in consultations all over the world, Ian Gavin, of Water Aid gave evidence on the planning portal that this November 2015 exercise was a “manipulated consultation“.

img_0831In addition this wasn’t a “vote” of any sort. It was an event where supporters of the current scheme (Jonathan White and pro-proposal STC members) told any visitors coming through the door that “the better scheme was to completely demolish the RVH”. There was no alternative view available for consultation at the event.

At the official (November 2015) consultation, only 214 people (that is 58 % out of just 369 respondents) supported the RVH complete demolition “new build” option. Focussing on the residents of Southborough and High Brooms, as few as 182 people supported demolition (that is 63% of 289 STC residents). On the other hand, 3,000 people from Southborough and High Brooms signed the petition supporting keeping the RVH open in 2015. Ten times more people responded to the petition in 2015 than the consultation. The online petition in the past week launched by SEAM has made it clear that public views haven’t changed in the past year.

No “vote” took place as claimed in the planning officers’ documents. That would require a town wide referendum with campaign material from all sides sent for residents to consider, something that sadly hasn’t happened. 

(NB all above section in italics is taken directly from the SEAM submission and is NOT endorsed by Southborough News.  The full SEAM submission can be found on the Tunbridge Wells Planning website – search for 16/06081/HYBRID)

Southborough Society Pledges Full Support for Council Hub Scheme

The Southborough Society says it now fully supports the Council Hub scheme and has expressed that view clearly to planners, in a reversal of its position of a year ago.

The views of local amenity societies are generally given greater weight in planning reports than comments from individuals, so the stance of the Society will have been important to supporters of the current Hub scheme as it will have helped persuade the planning officers to recommend the Hub should be approved – something that was announced this week.

On the controversial issue of the Royal Victoria Hall, the Society argues its demolition is now inevitable and says: “It is hoped that tribute can be paid to the Royal Victoria Hall that will sadly need to be demolished to make way for the hub, this could be in the form of photos/original programmes/brass plaque.”

The Southborough Society opinion continues: “The promise is of state-of-the-art theatre facilities and hope this is delivered and hope the venue is properly marketed to attract a variety of hirers and performers. Space for the provision of museum displays is sought. Within the cultural centre it is hoped that high quality display cabinets are incorporated into the library space”.

M Howes

The Chairman of the Southborough Society, Michael Howes (pictured above), previously was a strong supporter of the Royal Victoria Hall being retained.  After a survey of members in 2015 he said in a newsletter to members: “The results of this survey reinforce the Society’s stance that the existing hall should be kept when the Hub is built.”

Of the 82 completed questionnaires that were returned by Southborough Society members in that 2015 survey:

  • 51%  said they would prefer the existing building to be retained and renovated
  • 21% said they would like the main auditorium kept but incorporated into the new Hub with the possible demolition of parts of the current building.
  • 28% said they would prefer total demolition of the existing hall and a new complex built in its place.

Of those that favoured the demolition/rebuild option in this 2015 survey, 83 % wanted the new theatre to be at least as big as the RVH and have at least the same facilities.

best-victoria-hall

Some Southborough Society members have already expressed surprise at the recent switch in the Society’s position, which accepts a complete change in the appearance of the centre of Southborough from the largely Victorian character that makes it still recognisable from the picture of the London Road shown above from 1910.

Michael Howes told members during the summer this year that although he had switched his personal position to support for RVH demolition, the Society would remain  “neutral” in public, as members were too divided for an all-Society view to be formed. It is not clear at what point the public Society position was switched to full support for the Hub.

Some Society members have also queried whether Michael Howes has stuck rigidly to the constitution of the Society (included at the end of this article), which demands that any change in policy be agreed at the Annual General Meeting.  No debate was held at this year’s AGM on whether the Royal Victoria Hall should be retained. Members can demand special Society meetings if 15 members combine to demand a meeting in a letter.

When questioned by Southborough News on these issues, Michael Howes made the following comments:  “Fewer than a third of the Society’s members responded to the questionnaire which suggests that the rest were either neutral or didn’t care. It is therefore wrong of some of our critics to state that we are going against the wishes of our members – statistically this does not stack up. Also, much more detail about the Hub has come to light since the survey. At the time it was widely rumoured that the RVH’s replacement would be a tiny village hall with a stage at one end. January’s public consultation proved this not to be the case – a multi purpose hall is proposed with a larger seating capacity than the current theatre”.

hub-hallMr Howes continued by speculating about the alternatives: “It is important to consider the consequences if the Hub application is not approved. It will not be a chance for the RVH to be restored. The three landowners would simply shelve the idea of any community facility and sell the land. The three councils involved in this scheme believe it to be the only viable option and the people campaigning against it run the risk of denying Southborough a chance of rejuvenation at all”.

Mr Howes ended his comments by saying: “The slogan of the Southborough Society is “The civic, heritage and amenity Society for Southborough and High Brooms”. We are not focused purely on history, we have to be forward thinking and consider the amenities of the town as well. We currently have a medical centre which is not adequate to serve the needs of the area plus huge uncertainty about the tenancy of its building, a dilapidated council office with no disabled access, a piece of wasteland which is an eyesore to thousands of passers by each day, no focal point of the town or a town square which could be considered the heart of the community and no museum space for us to show off our rich heritage. All of these issues will be resolved with the creation of the Hub and for me it is a no-brainer”.

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Dr Janet Sturgis (pictured above), who is Chair of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society, told Southborough News on Thursday:  “While of course the Tunbridge Wells Civic Society’s members have views on this issue, we know from experience that our intervention in Southborough matters is not welcomed by the Southborough Society, who feel we ought not to interfere in “their patch”. We are facing our own Cultural Hub proposals, so follow the Southborough case with interest but do not feel it appropriate to intervene.”

Mr Howes has reaffirmed his pro-Hub stance in recent days with a new submission to the planning authority under his own name and he remains active on Facebook, where he engaged in an exchange with Hub critics (see below).  Mr Howes insisted this week that the man who part funded the building of the Royal Victoria Hall in 1900, Sir David Salomons, would now support its demolition.

Mr Howes, Olwyn Kinghorn and her husband Ian Kinghorn are believed to be the main three members of the Southborough Society committee that have taken the lead on the Society’s policy on the Hub. All three feel the “silent majority” of Southborough residents back the current plans, despite the current online petition against the scheme which has now been signed by 1,200 people.  Petition details here:

http://bit.ly/2eDPwmR

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This is the constitution of the Southborough Society:

OBJECTS:
The objects of the society shall be:
(a) to encourage high standards of planning, architecture and road development in the area within the jurisdiction of Southborough Town Council
(b) to stimulate interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the town and its surroundings.
(c) to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic or architectural interest in the town, the Common and the surrounding countryside including footpaths, bridlepaths and trees
(d) to pursue the aforesaid objects by the purchase of …property…meetings, exhibitions, newsletters etc (edited here)
(e) to raise funds for the furtherance of the work of the society…

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE:
The society shall elect an Executive Committee to organize and co-ordinate the activities of the Society, to represent the Society and to manage its affairs in such manner as the Executive Committee may from time to time think fit, but subject always to any prior directions of the Society in general meeting… (detail of numbers of executive committee members follows)

MEETINGS:
(a) An annual General Meeting of the Society shall be held each year before the end of July
(b) A special meeting of the Society shall be convened by the Chairman or Secretary within 28 days of the receipt by either of them of a request therefore signed by 15 members of the Society stating the objects of such a meeting
(c) Ordinary meetings of the Society may beheld at such times as the Executive shall determine
(d) 6 members personally present shall constitute a quorum for any meeting of the Society

Key Planning Decision Next Week as Hub Project Team Ignore Petition

The current Southborough Hub plans are set to be approved at a Tunbridge Wells planning committee meeting on Wednesday 9th November amid a new warning that such a decision would signal the end of high quality theatre in town.

The project team at Kent County Council and Southborough Town Council have pushed ahead with their planning application despite the “Southborough Deserves Better” petition signed by more than a thousand residents opposing the current scheme. Link explaining petition here:

http://bit.ly/2eDPwmR

As expected, the professional council planners have recommended the Hub scheme is  approved and it is unlikely that the elected councillors will defy that advice.  However, the objection from Sport England to the loss of part of the Ridgewaye playing fields hasn’t been dropped and that could still mean there’s a chance that next Wednesday’s decision is later overruled by central government planning authorities.

The warnings about the new scheme’s poor facilities came from Tony Egan, who ran the pantomine in Southborough for 30 years.  Mr Egan said: “The Royal Victoria Hall was built to the same standards as the West End theatre. On the Hub plans set to be approved, the facilities of the Royal Victoria Hall are nowhere to be seen.”

Jason old RVHMr Egan continued: “If councillors push through this plan, the days of high quality theatre in Southborough are over. The new Hub hall has no stage, nowhere for scenery or an orchestra and has not enough dressing rooms or toilets for performers to meet legal requirements.  The architects have no idea.  We were promised a refurbished Royal Victoria Hall or a “state of the art” replacement.  We will have neither.  We have been deceived.”

The document that the Councillors next Wednesday will consider before making their decision was published on Tuesday. It was written by the professional planning officers at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) and concludes: “These proposals provide the opportunity for the reinvigoration and regeneration of Southborough town centre.”

The picture below shows the first floor plan of the Community Hall showing meeting rooms that would double up as dressing rooms for theatre productions.

The full time planning officers at TWBC will have been in consultation with the Hub project team for many months and so will have already tried to steer the proposal to a form acceptable to current planning regulations.  It is still possible that the officers’ recommendation will be rejected by the elected councillors on the TWBC planning committee when it meets on Wednesday.

In addition, planning law states that if the statutory body, Sport England, are opposed to the scheme, then the planners at Tunbridge Wells won’t get the final say.  Instead a unit within the government department dealing with local government (the National Planning Casework Unit) will decide whether to refer the issue to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid.  And he would then make the final decision.

In a controversial paragraph 10.22, the TWBC planners state that “the local population voted overwhelmingly at the November 2015-January 2016 consultation exercise in favour of a new build”. It is not clear whether the planners were aware that the total number supporting the new build at that consultation was only 181 Southborough people out of just 287 respondents from the town.  The option of refurbishing the Royal Victoria Hall in tact wasn’t included in the choices offered by the council at that stage, despite the earlier petitions signed by thousands of residents arguing for the Victoria Hall to be reopened.

hub-allHere are some key sections from the TWBC report on reasons for recommending approval:

  • The proposal would result in the demolition of the Royal Victoria Hall, a “non-designated heritage asset” and as such would result in “harm”. However, as required by paragraph 135 of the NPPF, in making a balanced judgement having regard to the significance this heritage asset, it is concluded that the harm resulting from the loss of this building would be outweighed by the public benefits, including the provision of a range of new community facilities as well as new housing to meet identified needs.
  • Whilst the proposed maximum provision of 69 dwellings would exceed the expectations of Policy SALP AL/SO2 that approximately 50-60 residential units would be delivered, it is accepted that the site has sufficient capacity to accommodate this number of dwellings and that maximizing the potential for housing delivery accords with national and local development plan policy.
  • The traffic movements generated by the development, including service vehicles, can be accommodated without detriment to highway safety and suitable measures (secured by conditions) have been proposed to address the highway impact of the proposals and to meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.
  • As an objection to these proposals has been lodged by Sport England, before any planning permission can be granted it will be necessary to refer the application to the National Planning Casework Unit.

ground-floor

In the detailed explanation of the proposal, the TWBC document states:

There are three main components of the proposed hub building:
(1)   theatre/community hall – this is the forward-most “block” fronting London Road. It contains a 350 person capacity theatre/main community hall with associated back of house workshops, storage, toilets, plant room and kitchen; a self contained ground floor retail unit facing London Road; community rooms at first floor level above the retail unit. The community / theatre elements would provide for flexible use that could be hired separately for community groups, events and theatrical productions. This is the tallest part of the building – two storeys on the frontage rising to an equivalent four storey height (similar to the height of the flats at Hythe Close).

(2)    circular shaped central core – as well as providing the main entrance to the
theatre/community space, this would accommodate the replacement Town Council office accommodation, a library and a small café/bar to support the community uses. This space is single storey but with generous (4m to 6m) headroom and a central rooflight. It has a large overhanging canopy that provides space for outdoor seating associated with the café

(3)  medical centre – this two storey element is located furthest from London Road and is accessible either from the central core or through its own entrance.

The document continues in para 2.12:

The Hub is a public building which is intended to be iconic and provide a distinctive character for the regenerated Southborough town centre. The building would be of a contemporary appearance… The proposed external materials for the walls are fibre cement panels and glazing at the lower level, copper cladding and a lightweight translucent polycarbonate cladding material at the upper levels that will provide an opportunity to illuminate the building at night. Amended details have been received which show changes to the external appearance of the building with regard to materials.

facade

The planning document implies there is a planning requirement to explore ways the Royal Victoria Hall could be retained, but goes on to state:

The applicant has confirmed the following:
–    the Royal Victoria Hall maintenance costs have been rising over the past decade and, following a recent insurance claim against the Town Council from a member of the public injured in the hall, along with drains and walls collapsing, the decision was taken by STC to eventually close the facility as they could no longer afford the outlays.
–    At the outset of the project, various surveys were undertaken on the building, including a report on its condition, which highlighted various problems
–    Funding was explored with the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to retain the building but both were negative responses.
–    The current building is not flexible, with a racked stage that is unable to be used for any other purpose. The seating is screwed down and the building is not accessible in some areas.
–    The building does not meet current building regulations in terms of acoustic and thermal insulation, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), fire regulations, asbestos and other public performance space requirements.
–    There are greater costs associated with the refurbishment of older buildings.

In tandem with the above, consultation was carried out on both options and the local population voted overwhelmingly at the November 2015-January 2016 consultation exercise in favour of a new build.

It is accepted that the above satisfactorily demonstrates that the policy requirement for the applicant to explore opportunities to retain and improve the Royal Victoria Hall has been complied with and the reasons why this option has not been pursued have been clearly explained.

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The Hub team’s so far unsuccessful efforts to appease the Sport England objection are outlined in para 2.28:
Since the application was submitted the applicant has clarified that in compensation for the loss of playing pitches from the application site, the following improvements and enhancements would be made to the adjacent playing fields:

  • Purpose built and improved sports pavilion facilities (designed with potential to be extend in the longer term),
  • Levelling and re-contouring of the existing pitches to the north of the site to create larger playing surfaces thereby allowing the two junior pitches displaced by the application proposals to be re-provided on this adjacent land to ensure no overall loss of pitches,
  • If desired and subject to further consultation with the football clubs – 2 further pitches could be created, resulting in a net increase of 2 pitches It is proposed that the works be completed within 18 months of closure of the existing pitches on the Hub site.

The planning officers come down on the side of the Hub team and not Sport England, arguing:

The proposed sports pavilion proposed is a two storey building that has four group changing rooms and two individual changing rooms with hot and cold running water. This is considered to be a substantial improvement over the current temporary use of the former Ridgewaye school building, which does not have any showers. Whilst the pavilion is located in the area of land allocated for sports pitches provision under SALP Policy AL/SO3, this is considered to be acceptable as the pavilion is sited so as not to affect the pitch layout…

The final paragraphs include:

10.93 As further clarified during the course of this application, these proposals will provide tangible benefits to the adjacent playing fields, which in your officers’ opinion outweigh the loss of a relatively small area of playing pitches when compared to that which will remain. The new sports pavilion, improvements to the playing pitch levels in parts of the site to increase of the playable area of the adjacent playing fields will increase the playing capacity and enhance the facilities offered here.

10.94  The design of the proposed Hub building is uncompromisingly modern and is not to everyone’s taste. However, when account is taken of national planning policy on design, the building and the site’s layout has much to commend it. The building has been deliberately designed to be a landmark, signalling the heart of the town centre at all times of the day, including during the evening. The variety of the townscape, particularly on the eastern side of London Road, provides an opportunity to create a distinctive design. Concerns regarding the suitability of the translucent polycarbonate cladding are understood and there will be scope as the fine details of the building’s design progresses to address this.