The plan by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to borrow £90million to build new council offices and theatre in the town is on the brink of collapse after a devastating set of local election results for the ruling Conservative Group.
The leader of the Borough Council, David Jukes, lost his seat of Speldhurst and Bidborough. And the councillor who had been the driving force behind the project, Cllr Tracy Moore (pictured below) also lost her seat in Park Ward, with Conservative candidates there receiving only 20% of the vote.
Both Cllr Jukes and Cllr Moore lost decisively to the Tunbridge Wells Alliance Party, which was formed predominantly to fight the scheme that would construct a 1,200 seat theatre to replace the Assembly Hall.
The TW Alliance says the cost of the interest payments on the borrowing needed to fund the project will mean continuing cuts to council services for everyone in the Borough, which stretches from Southborough and Paddock Wood in the north to Hawkhurst and Cranbrook in the south.
The TW Alliance won 5 new seats on Thursday in addition to the one seat secured last year by Cllr Nick Pope (pictured below) who told Southborough News he thought the Civic Centre scheme to be built on part of Calverley Grounds near the BBC studios now only had a “30 per cent” chance of going ahead.
The new Borough Council will have 28 Conservatives and 20 opposition councillors. However, several of the Conservatives are opposed to their party’s scheme or have abstained on past votes, so it is no longer clear there is a majority in the council to go ahead with the new buildings.
Nick Pope said: “We would have been relatively happy with 3 seats, but to win 5 out of our 6 seats that we put candidates up for is extremely good. The losses for the Conservatives in Tunbridge Wells are much worse than across the country and that’s because of local issues.”
Asked if the TW Alliance support had benefited from the disarray in national politics, Nick Pope told me: “A few people brought up Brexit, but that’s something that we kept away from because it is not a local issue. Our candidates are a mix of for and against Brexit, but that’s not a local issue”.
Nick Pope told Southborough News that feeling in the town against the Calverley Grounds project is very strong. He says there has been a “massive change” in the electoral map after two rounds of annual voting for the Borough Council. Just over a year ago the Conservatives had 90% of the seats – now they have just 58% (28 out of 48 seats).
It would take just 5 Conservatives to support any vote to ditch the scheme for it to be sunk. The Conservative group on the Borough Council will have to choose another leader in the coming days and decide on a new policy.
After his defeat, former TWBC leader David Jukes told the Daily Telegraph: “To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. We have lost some good councillors, and with so many long-term projects in front of us, I’m worried this will have a devastating effect on economic growth.”
TW Alliance’s Cllr Pope said he would like to think the Conservatives will change direction. He said: “If they don’t, it would be very foolish and they will probably find they have strong opposition from within the council and from residents for the next year and until the next election.” The next vote for another third of councillors at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council will be in May 2020.
Cllr Pope continued: “It is highly likely that Hoopers and others will appeal against the Compulsory Purchase Order decision which has just been approved by the Planning Inspectorate. It is highly unlikely that they will start to build this year because the appeals will probably delay that.”
Cllr Pope concluded the probability of the £90 million development happening has dropped well below 50%. He said: “Politically they would be very foolish to push ahead with it. It is probably dropping to about 30%. There’s a good chance it will be stopped”.
Cllr Pope concluded that voters had become increasingly angry at the Conservative’s plans, concluding: “There’s a feeling that the town is looking shabby and people will be paying more for garden waste. They’ve been suffering from reduced services over the past decade and they can only see that getting worse if there’s a large loan to pay off.”
David Elliott (pictured below), who was among those Conservatives who lost his Borough seat in Thursday’s vote, told Southborough News it was up to the remaining Conservatives to decide what path to follow next. But he felt the Civic scheme was well advanced and could still start building work in the next year.
Cllr Elliott expressed his continued support for the scheme as a long term investment. He said: “I can understand people being concerned about borrowing a lot of money for the future but it has been done before when the existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall were built. The loan for that has only just been paid off.”
Cllr Nick Pope argued it wasn’t too late to abandon the scheme. He said: “The money they have spent is the equivalent of just over two years of loan repayments so it is a lot of money but it is a lot less than the project would cost and we can be pretty certain the project is not going to be £94 million but well over £ 100 million.”
Back in November 2017, Southborough News interviewed the Conservative Tracy Moore about why she believed the new theatre and Council offices were vital for the future of Tunbridge Wells. You can listen to a recording of what she said by clicking here:
TWBC opposition now has 9 Liberal Democrats plus 6 for Tunbridge Wells Alliance, 4 for Labour and 1 Independent (who formerly was part of TW Alliance). Cllr Nick Blackwell (below) who leads the Labour group on Southborough Town Council called it a “seismic shock” for the Conservatives.
Cllr Blackwell said: “I can’t in my lifetime remember anything like this. For David Jukes to lose his seat in Speldhurst and Bidborough and for Tracey Moore to lose her seat in Park Ward, I don’t think anybody believed that would happen.”
Cllr Blackwell described the Conservative attitude locally as “hubristic arrogance”. He said: “They will not listen to people and they plough on regardless and they don’t think they are accountable to the electorate”.
Cllr Blackwell concluded: “I would hope now people down at the Town Hall will realise that this (Civic development) is not viable. This is not going to happen. There isn’t the support in the Town. If they have got any sense this is the point where they take stock of where they are and rethink their position.”
In Tunbridge Wells Borough Council voting on Thursday:
|Seats Won||% of votes|
|Women’s Equality Party||0||2%|
In nearby boroughs in Kent, the losses for the Conservatives were much less dramatic than in Tunbridge Wells. In Tonbridge and Malling, the Lib Dems won five seats, but the Tory council majority remains large. On TMBC, there are now 39 Conservatives against 15 from all opposition parties.
There was little change in Maidstone, where the Conservatives remain the largest party, but with no overall control, after losing one seat to Labour.
Here were some of the more dramatic results from wards around Tunbridge Wells on Thursday:
|SPELDHURST & BIDBOROUGH||Votes||Share of Vote|
|Lucinda Willis||TW Alliance||1007||51%||Elected|
|David Jukes||Cons||613||31%||Not elected|
|Iola Palmer-Stirling||Lib Dem||351||18%||Not elected|
|PARK WARD for 2 seats||Votes||Share of Vote|
|Christian Atwood||TW Alliance||1125||24%||Elected|
|Rebecca Bruneau||TW Alliance||1088||23%||Elected|
|Tracy Moore||Cons||539||11%||Not elected|
|Rachel Sadler||Lib Dem||486||10%||Not elected|
|Gillian Douglass||Lib Dem||482||10%||Not elected|
|Victoria White||Cons||437||9%||Not elected|
|Linda Jagger||Labour||211||4%||Not elected|
|Victor Webb||Independent||211||4%||Not elected|
|Michael Jerrom||UKIP||128||3%||Not elected|
In St John’s Ward there was a heavy defeat for the Conservative Tunbridge Wells Borough Councillor and Deputy Leader of Kent County Council, Peter Oakford. Mr Oakford (pictured below) lives in Pennington Road in Southborough.
|ST JOHN’S WARD||Votes||Share of Vote|
|Marguerita Morton||Lib Dem||1165||59%||Elected|
|Peter Oakford||Cons||347||18%||Not elected|
|Benjamin Phillips||Green||174||9%||Not elected|
|Louise Reid||Labour||154||8%||Not elected|
|Robert Horan||UKIP||125||6%||Not elected|
More results at: