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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.