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.
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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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
Q: 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.
Q: 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.