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.
The 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Q: 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.