The Conservative Borough Councillor for Southborough North is to vote against his own Conservative group’s plans to borrow £72 million to build a new Civic Centre and theatre in Tunbridge Wells.
Cllr Joe Simmons (below) called a referendum among his constituents on the Civic Centre plans and 80 per cent were against it. The vote was 342 votes against and only 86 in favour. The turnout was 13 per cent of the electorate after leaflets were hand delivered to residents’ homes.
Cllr Joe Simmons was asked by Southborough News what his Conservative colleagues made of his referendum. He replied: “I think it is fair to say that I was not favourably considered as a result of it. But I think they understood that it is up to me to decide on how I consult with my residents, just as I wouldn’t try to tell them how to consult with theirs.”
The Tunbridge Wells Conservative Group says the existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall theatre are out of date and can’t be refurbished. But the development plans are opposed by those who say council tax will have to rise to pay for the venture and Calverley Grounds will be overshadowed by the tall new buildings (shown below).
A petition has been launched which argues that: “Reworking and renovating the existing civic buildings would be far greater value for money than the current proposal with significantly less disruption.” Critics say the plans will require a half million pound annual subsidy to the new theatre and mean council tax payers having to pay £ 2.5 million every year in debt interest payments, forcing cuts in key council services.
The petition link is here:
By contrast, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council says the new development looking out over Calverley Grounds would provide “much-needed new commercial office space” and “be part of the wider regeneration of the town and borough”.
The Hoopers Department store has warned the scheme could threaten its future as it would lose its car park during the development. Tunbridge Wells Borough Councillors will vote on the scheme at a full debate on Wednesday 6 December at 6:30pm in the Town Hall.
Residents of Sherwood have also voted in a referendum by 80 per cent against the project. 452 voters were opposed with 113 supporting it on a turnout of 11 per cent. Councillor Frank Williams said a new theatre would be of “little benefit” to the people of Sherwood.
This is a transcript of the rest of the Southborough News interview with Southborough North’s Councillor, Joe Simmons.
Q: The Conservative supporters of the scheme would say that only those opposed to the plans would have bothered to vote in the referendum and the silent majority would be in favour of it?
Joe Simmons: There is a perception that that is the case. It’s not actually a perception that I would agree with. I think it is a highly unlikely hypothesis.
Q: What do you think the majority of Conservative Councillors will vote when it comes to a vote in December?
Joe Simmons: My impression – and it is only an impression – is that probably the majority would be in favour of it.
Q: Personally, do you think borrowing that amount of money for the Civic Centre is worth it given the potential benefits?
Joe Simmons: I think it is possible to make a case for it. But as far as my residents are concerned – whom I am there to represent – if they don’t want it, then what I feel about it – what my own personal prejudices might be – are irrelevant.
Q: But some people might say that as a councillor you need to lead with a vision and come to a view. How did you vote in your own referendum?
Joe Simmons: I didn’t vote in my referendum. That would seem to be a conflict of interest somehow.
Q: Do you think the council business plan should be considered by an independent group?
Joe Simmons: It is going to be considered by independent experts…the business plan is evolving…there is a “stage three” report expected in the next week. But it’s a simple decision which people up here have decided on: “do you think we should be spending so much money on a new theatre and Town Hall” and the resounding answer was “no”.
Q: Do you think the existing Town Hall could be refurbished and updated?
Joe Simmons: On the numbers we have been presented with so far, I don’t think so. It would be a costly option and not necessarily the best option for that particular site. I think there are other things that could be more usefully done on that site than continuing to have the Town Hall there.
Q: So you don’t think the staff could just carry on in their offices as they are?
Joe Simmons: I am persuaded that the facilities are pretty unsatisfactory for modern office working. That bit I am convinced by. And if that is the case, they are better off finding somewhere else. Whether the current programme is the way to do it – or not – is a different discussion I think.
Q: And what about the impact on the Calverley Grounds?
Joe Simmons: Well the local residents clearly are very unhappy about it and anyone within striking distance of it seems to be unhappy about it. It is easy up here in Southborough North to take a more elevated view of a slight infringement on Calverley Grounds. I personally don’t think it is a big imposition, frankly. But I don’t use Calverley Grounds that much, so it is not something I have a strong feeling for or against. Towns have to evolve. They can’t stay still. I accept that concept.
Q: So why do you think 80 per cent were so strongly against it?
Joe Simmons: It was a question of money. People just thought it was a lot of money for a particular project that maybe they don’t feel particularly strongly about. A lot of people didn’t even know about it when I spoke to them.
Q: Are there different investments that you think should have a higher priority?
Joe Simmons: None that I can put my finger on right now. But I think so. I think it is wonderful to have a new theatre. But is that the best way to spend a lot of money?
Q: What about Southborough’s new theatre? Do you have any thoughts on how that is progressing?
Joe Simmons: No I haven’t. The Southborough development is very much within the orbit of Southborough Town Council, which I am not a member of. And it doesn’t really come up as far as Borough is concerned, except when it came up in Planning Committee – and I am not on Planning. It is not something we have any direct involvement in as councillors. It remains to be seen – I think – what finally goes up on that site.
Q: So you think they may not build the exact design that has been put forward up to now?
Joe Simmons: I honestly have no idea. I wouldn’t say I’m kept very far away from it. But as a Borough Councillor I am not in the loop.