The controversial plan by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to take on large debts to build new council offices and a theatre stands a strong chance of being cancelled soon, despite last week’s inconclusive special council meeting.
The fate of the £90million project is now in the hands of a group of ten Conservative councillors who don’t want the scheme, including Sean Holden who told Southborough News after Monday’s votes that it was “understood” by the other 18 Conservatives on the Borough Council that the scheme “wouldn’t happen”.
The planned project (that also includes a new car park as well as the council offices and a theatre big enough to attract West End shows) would require the removal of at least 70 trees and a section of parkland on the existing Calverley Grounds (pictured below).
Cllr Holden went along with the decision to pause – rather than cancel – the scheme at last Monday’s meeting. He said: “Being frank, some members of the Conservative Party are committed to this: I think they need to be given time to come around to understanding that it can’t go on.”
Cllr Holden (pictured below) continued: “I hear what the people say and I’ve always known what the people think about this (project). I’ve never supported it. And now we have seen what they say and we have to take notice.”
Cllr Holden welcomed the fact that talks with other parties on the council were planned and said: “What should come out of those talks is a cancellation of this operation. I have never voted for this project…and there are enough members of the Conservative group who take that view that it cannot go through.”
The special Council meeting was called after a slump in support for the Conservatives in the May Tunbridge Wells local election that went well beyond losses elsewhere in Kent.
Opponents feel the council would have to cut services to fund interest payments on the Calverley scheme’s debts and don’t want the historic park (below) diminished in size.
Cllr Holden concluded the cancellation: “has to be done within the next two months because of contracts and so on. We want it to be quite quick. I certainly don’t want this to be a prevarication. I don’t want them to come back with a reworked revamped idea of it. I want to stop it and then look at what we might do in this town of Tunbridge Wells.”
The new Borough Council has 28 Conservatives and 20 opposition councillors. In the opposition are Lib Dems 9, Alliance 6, Labour 4 and Independent 1.
Meanwhile Cllr David Scott (pictured below), who is the Conservative in charge of the development in the Borough, told Southborough News that investors were now coming to Tunbridge Wells because “developers expect us to move the town forward.”
Cllr Scott warned: “We have managed to persuade developers to come into the town. We are at risk of ending up with developers saying we have stopped the reason for them coming into Tunbridge Wells.”
Cllr Scott said all of the alternatives to the £90m project “cost money and will impact the town. There is no future for this town if we ignore this. I am more than happy to consider any alternative. The Assembly Hall is not viable for very much longer.”
Cllr Scott continued: “If we were to actually postpone this by a year it would cost an awful lot more money to do that. If the view of the council is that we need to spend an awful lot more money to postpone it for a year, then that will be the view of the council. The council may come up with a different view.”
Asked if the green spaces of the Calverley Grounds (shown below) were now safe Cllr Scott said: “I’m not going to come to any conclusion at this point. I want to see us move forward and make a cost effective decision. I would like to see it done fairly rapidly ..within months.”
The noticeboard in the picture (above) includes this notice shown (below) that states that all the trees and shrubs behind the noticeboard would be lost.
Cllr Scott made it clear he believes the current internal structure of the Town Hall was in such a poor state that it was “no longer fit for purpose” and needed to be rebuilt almost entirely behind the facade. He thought the protected council chamber could find an alternative use – perhaps a pub, using the example of the Opera House Weatherspoons.
Cllr Scott thought it might be feasible to attract a university to move in and pay to rebuild the Town Hall as a centre for learning.
However, a Southborough resident who listened into the meeting in an overspill room in the Town Hall rejected the idea that the existing building could no longer be used.
He supplied Southborough News with photos of the ornate plaster ceilings (below) that he said provided evidence the Tunbridge Wells Town Hall was a usable historic building and there was a strong case for council workers to stay in it, refurbishing where needed and sub-letting any rooms no longer needed.
The Southborough resident, Clive Davis, said: “These ceilings are beautiful and should be preserved for future generations. So many people do not realise what’s there until it’s gone. The whole place should be listed. It will never be replaced. In fact I doubt the craftsmen are capable now of replacing it.”
The Alliance political group on the council,which was formed to stop the £90million Council borrowing, said it expects a new expert report called RIBA stage 4 will be published in July and show costs already exceeding the £90million budget.
The alliance’s Cllr David Hayward told Southborough News this would be the excuse the Conservative leadership would use to cancel the project. Cllr Hayward, who represents Pembury, is pictured below at last Monday’s meeting on the far right of the picture.
Cllr Hayward said: “I am convinced that at the first opportunity they can to get out of it saving some face, they will.”
Cllr Hayward (below) argued that it would cost a lot less to refurbish the existing Assembly Hall theatre and Town Hall than the figure of £50million suggested by the Council leaders. He thought the Assembly Hall could be enlarged in a cost effective way with some extra space from the now empty police station next door, which the Council has already bid to purchase.
Cllr Hayward said he wants a wider public consultation across the Borough on what to spend council money on to begin soon.
Listen to Conservative Cllr Sean Holden who has always opposed Calverley project and who now predicts its cancellation within two months:
Listen to the Conservative’s Cllr David Scott who is responsible for development in the town and doesn’t want the Calverley Project cancelled until an alternative is agreed:
In the council vote last Monday, 11 Conservatives voted against their own Conservative Council leader on Motion 3 which was proposed by the opposition and suggested major decisions on the project be referred to the full council, not just be decided by the Conservative run Council cabinet. The opposition motion carried by 30 votes from a mix of parties to 14 Conservatives.
The 11 Conservatives who rejected their leader’s advice and supported Motion 3 were:
Sean Holden (Benenden & Cranbrook),
Andy Fairweather (Frittenden & Sissinghurst),
Dr Linda Hall (Goudhurst & Lamberhurst),
Beverley Palmer (Hawkhurst & Sandhurst),
Patrick Thomson (Hawkhurst & Sandhurst),
Frank Williams (Sherwood),
Joe Simmons (Southborough North),
Julia Soyke (Speldhurst & Bidborough),
Julian Stanyer (Speldhurst & Bidborough)
Joy Podbury (Rusthall & Deputy Mayor),
James Scholes (Pantiles & Mayor of Borough)
The following 3 Conservatives did not attend the meeting:
Paul Barrington-King (Pembury),
Dr Ronen Basu (Culverden),
David Reilly (Pembury)
44 attended the meeting in Total. 19 of the opposition were there. Nick Pope of the Alliance was also there before the meeting began, but was forced to withdraw as his wife owns a flat overlooking Hoopers car park (that doesn’t overlook the park at all) but is affected by the Compulsory Purchase Order so could qualify for financial compensation for noise and dust disruption. Nick Pope was therefore told by council officials that he couldn’t vote on the issue he was elected on.