The Chairman of the Friends of Calverley Grounds, Nicholas Pope, has told Southborough News that “much better options have been ignored” in the rush to build on the edge of a listed park in the centre of Tunbridge Wells.
Nicholas Pope said: “The existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall theatre would make a wonderful renewed Town Hall and modern theatre with the right investment, and could even attract Heritage Lottery Fund support, reducing the cost to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. In 2015 this was the plan!”
He argued: “Just take a look at what Hammersmith & Fulham Council are planning to do with their 1930s Town Hall in Hammersmith after a previous project was stopped because it was no longer financially viable. Now they are looking to revitalise their Town Hall, an iconic building from the 1930s, much like ours, and provide many different uses in the larger space they are creating.”
The proposed redevelopment in Hammersmith is illustrated below:
Mr Pope believes “there could be some major changes in the political landscape” if Tunbridge Wells councillors vote this week to proceed with the project. A new group called Tunbridge Wells Alliance says it will be standing in seats at next year’s Borough Council election “to push through change” by releasing the grip of the Conservative Party on the Council.
Mr Pope (pictured below) says: “You might think I am anti-theatre and anti-progress. I am not. A better theatre would be wonderful for Tunbridge Wells, but what type of theatre and at what cost? £90 million is excessive for the Civic Complex and the theatre is a fixed seat 19th century design that offers no flexibility for future changes in theatre that new technologies are bringing in now, and will increasingly be used in live productions.”
(Photo above by Ingrid Pope)
Mr Pope’s letter to Southborough News continues: “As chairman of the Friends of Calverley Grounds (shown below), my initial concern was, and still is, the damage to a Grade II Listed park. 5% will be dug up for the underground car park and covered over again, over 2% will be built on with an office building that will mainly be let out for commercial use, 66 trees will be removed, and the western edge of Calverley Grounds will change from a soft green boundary to an edifice of glass and concrete.
He continues: “Initially, we were told the underground car park would not change the topology of Calverley Grounds, the park would be returned to the way it was, but now the land in the north west corner will be raised and the slope on the northern side of the valley much steeper than before. This is not the original promise.”
“Additionally, if the council is going to take some land from the park, it should automatically trigger some form of investment, as compensation, in the rest of the park, and this should be included in the Civic Centre project budget. There are no plans to invest in the rest of the park, and, as an example, the bowling pavilion next to the new playground, which was due to be refurbished at the same time as the community funded Calverley Adventure Grounds was built, has not happened.”
“The tennis courts, the picnic area, the paths and much more need to be upgraded and improved. The park needs a masterplan to help decide what work should take place (e.g. re-routing of paths, review of planting, upgrading of the tired sporting facilities) and a budget put aside to undertake this work. Without a budget set aside to improve the the rest of the park and the failure to refurbish the pavilion, how can we trust the council?”
Mr Pope also cites a survey from 2015 on Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s own website in which 55 per cent of respondents said they would NOT be prepared to pay an extra £ 10 a year on their council tax to fund “a significant project such as a theatre”.
Mr Pope argues that: “Councillor Tracy Moore’s enthusiastic stories about how much residents want the new theatre are not true. All evidence says Councillor Moore is wrong and is caught up in her own enthusiasm for the hugely expensive project and her role on Cabinet to sell the project to the residents of Tunbridge Wells.”
Mr Pope also states that: “The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, (shown below) which is repeatedly used as a model of what a new theatre could do for Royal Tunbridge Wells, is not as financially sound as we have all been led to believe.”
He states: “The theatre in Canterbury has required massive financial support for the last few years, averaging £1 million pounds for the last 3, significantly more than the current Assembly Hall Theatre subisidy of £250,000, or the subsidy that has been put in the budget for the new theatre, £350,000 per year. If the Marlowe Theatre is profitable, why is Canterbury Council handing it over to a charitable trust rather than using the profits to benefit residents?”
Mr Pope continues: “Not only is the subsidy likely to be much larger than expected, but also the cost of the theatre is more than £60 million when you take into account public realm work, inflation, consultancy costs, and the need to provide a new car park. £60 million is more than twice the cost of the Marlow Theatre, which cost £26 million.”
He concludes: “And we are told that is it cheaper to build a new theatre than to redevelop the existing Assembly Hall Theatre building, for this development, it is clearly not true. The Shellard Forumula has often been used to tell us how a new theatre will boost the local economy by £14 million or more, but the realistic figure is estimated at £4 million. The Shellard Formula is flawed and has been strongly criticised by the Arts Council.”
Mr Pope concludes that: “The funding of this large project would be a massive strain on the council and ultimately on residents.” He says the Borough Council’s central government funding is being cut every year and will become a “negative grant” in 2020 when TWBC will have to pay £610,000 back to central government, requiring “more service cuts and increasing costs of other services”.
He asks: “Should we really be cutting important services to help fund a project that some are calling a vanity project, and that will only be enjoyed by the few who can afford to go to the theatre?”