Southborough’s first ever “Town Meeting” will be held next week to find out what residents think of the newly revised Southborough Hub scheme to spend £10 million on a new hall, library, medical centre and football pavilion.
The Hub replaces the demolished Royal Victoria Hall Theatre (pictured below in May 2017). But critics say the new Hub fails to meet the Town Council’s promise to deliver a new “state of the art theatre” and will have little shared community space.
The Town Meeting has been called by one Labour and one Liberal Democrat councillor and will be held at the Southborough Primary School TN4 0SJ at 7pm on Tuesday 4th December 2018.
A member of the public will chair the Town Meeting as the Conservative mayor, Conservative deputy mayor and the Council’s Hub project leader, Ian Kinghorn, have all declined to attend due to “prior engagements”.
Town Meetings are governed by an Act of Parliament. It is the last chance for residents to hear all about the plans and discuss the proposals before the Tunbridge Wells Planning Committee meets to decide whether to approve the scheme.
The old Royal Victoria Hall had dedicated dressing rooms, a bar and 350 seats. The new hall planned in the Hub can only seat 250 people for theatre productions while dressing rooms will have to double up as council meeting rooms.
Councillor Trevor Poile of the Liberal Democrats and Labour Councillor, Nick Blackwell, are both concerned by the verdict of the national experts on theatre provision, the Theatres Trust, which said recently “it did not have confidence in the long term viability of the Hub” based on the latest plans.
A joint statement from Cllr Blackwell and Cllr Poile said: “The Southborough Community Hub is part of the biggest public investment that this town has ever seen and will affect the lives of generations of people living in the town for years to come. As Town Councillors, we believe that efforts to inform and engage residents, taxpayers, and potential users in its design and purpose have been unambitious and inadequate which will have a negative impact on the success of the project.”
The new building (above) will be wood framed with a terracotta coloured cladding facade and some zinc shingle. The only public consultation with the project team available to discuss the revised plans was held from 5-6pm on a Tuesday evening at the end of October. The previous plans approved by planners in 2016 were abandoned as they turned out to be too expensive.
In a statement on Friday to Southborough News, Cllr Blackwell said: “Many people in the town believed that whatever replaced the Royal Victoria Hall would be a real community hub. A central space within the town where people could come together; a social space that could be used by people of all ages. Our new theatre would be “State of the Art” and “the envy of other towns” according to local Conservative councillors. And the project would be signed sealed and delivered by Christmas 2016.”
Cllr Blackwell continues: “Sadly these promises have failed to materialise. An inability by the project Board to reign in the budget has now meant that the scheme that achieved planning consent in March 2017 has been scrapped and replaced with a cheaper “value engineered” alternative with more shared spaces and no box office, bar or café. Cllr Oakford told our Southborough Town Meetings a couple of years ago that he didn’t care what the building looked like. The latest plans bear this out. It looks like a 60s secondary modern with aspirations. Zinc and terracotta cladding do nothing to disguise the uninspiring utilitarian design.”
Cllr Blackwell then argues: “The library doubles up as pop up bar area. The committee rooms double up as changing rooms. The Project board admit that none of the hiring scenarios have been modelled or considered. Theatre and user groups have not been asked whether their productions can financially support a reduced seating capacity of 250 from 350. It is a dysfunctional building that can’t do what it supposed to do.”
Cllr Blackwell continues: “The build will be a series of out-of-keeping prefabricated boxes that have been condemned by the Theatres Trust as not fit for purpose and not financially viable in the long term. We have no business plan and we have now been told that Southborough Town Council is not to expect any income from the hall as the management will be outsourced to the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall.”
Cllr Blackwell argues: “The whole process has been beset by poor management and a project that has overreached the skillset of those involved. For KCC this has only ever been a cost cutting exercise to sell off our playing fields and library site for housing. What we have been presented is the worst case scenario. Few of us on Southborough Town Council envisaged it would be quite this poor. Despite boasts of record amounts for the sale of the playing fields it is obvious the money has run out. The project Board spent years employing Pick Everard architects and working up a design that is never going to be built. We still don’t know how much money has been wasted on the aborted design.”
Cllr Blackwell concludes: “We do know that Southborough Town Council has been required to contribute an additional £500,000 (from the sale of the former Speldhurst Rd Allotments) and that the funding from the NHS for the medical centre is unconfirmed and still at risk. It is still not too late to change the decision and produce something that will be an asset to the town rather than an underused financial drag. We need the maximum number of people to attend the Town Meeting and to see the plans for the first time and express their views. I would urge everyone who cares about where they live to turn up and get involved.”
In the last few days, there have been new alterations to the internal plans with the small kitchen reportedly being moved next to library, with a servery from the kitchen so that drinks can be served in the library (coloured brown below) which will be turned into a bar for theatre events. This latest scheme is not in the current drawings (below) and will apparently mean less storage for the theatre.
Meanwhile former mayor David Elliott is the only person to have commented on the new planning application on the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council portal.
Councillor Elliot said: “We’ve been working towards revitalising the centre of Southborough for nearly twelve years now and we are almost there…..The Southborough Hub will transform the centre of Southborough once built. Don’t stop it now. I fully support this application. It would be a tragedy for Southborough if the funding already allocated for this project in these difficult times were to be lost forever if this planning application is not approved.”
You can comment on the TWBC website until 13th December at:
Pictures of the old Royal Victoria Hall demolition in 2017 are taken with permission from the blog “castles on the ground”:
Unseen demise of the Royal Victoria Hall
This was the same site pictured in the snow in April 2018.