Tunbridge Wells Council Tax Payers “Dodged a Bullet”

Just hours after Tunbridge Wells councillors dramatically defied their Conservative leadership and voted down plans to borrow £87million to build the Calverley Square project, central government dramatically increased the interest rate that the council would have had to pay had the scheme gone ahead.

David Hayward (pictured below), a councillor for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, told Southborough News that the community had “dodged a bullet”, as the borrowing costs of the Calverley scheme would have risen significantly so draining the Borough’s coffers still further.

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The Treasury announced on Wednesday that the Public Works Loan Board, which lends central government funds on to local authorities to deliver capital investment, had increased borrowing costs by a full 1% from a day earlier “to return them to 2018 levels.”

The Conservative Councillor in charge of the town’s Development, David Scott, had recently used the recent fall in market rates and therefore rates from borrowing from the Loan Board as a reason to advance the Calverley Square project.

The original 2.15 % interest rate (in place at the start of the week) would have meant a total of £ 115 million of interest or £ 2.3 million a year.  A 3.15 % interest rate (new rate) would have increased the borrowing cost to the council by around £ 1 million a year.

The following news report dramatically framed the change as: “Whitehall today threw a hand grenade into local authority borrowing plans.” For details see:

PWLB rate hike sends shockwaves through council finance sector

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Meanwhile, the top leadership of the Council is under pressure to resign after their stunning defeat on Tuesday night. 12 Conservatives voted for the brand new theatre and offices, while 12 failed to support the plans on the night. Another 3 were absent.

Council leader Alan McDermott and Head of Development Projects, David Scott, are vulnerable having decided to fight on to progress the Calverley Scheme despite the heavy Conservative defeats at the hands of the voters in this year’s local elections.

Only 12 Conservatives voted in favour of the flagship plan:
Alan McDermott (Brenchley),
Jane March (Brenchley & Horsmonden),
Tom Dawlings (Benenden & Cranbrook),
Carol Mackonochie (Capel),
David Scott (Culverden),
Chris Woodward (Broadwater),
Barbara Cobbold (Broadwater),
Godfrey Bland (Hawkhurst & Sandhurst),
Sarah Hamilton (Paddock Wood East),
Matthew Bailey (Paddock Wood West),
Bob Backhouse (Sherwood),
Julia Soyke (Speldhurst & Bidborough)

3 Conservatives abstained in the vote on the scheme:
Barry Noakes (Goudhurst & Lamberhurst),
Elizabeth Thomas (Paddock Wood West),
Paul Barrington-King (Pembury)

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9 Conservatives voted against the Calverley scheme:
Sean Holden (Benenden & Cranbrook),
Andy Fairweather (Frittenden & Sissinghurst),
Linda Hall (Goudhurst & Lamberhurst),
Beverley Palmer (Hawkhurst & Sandhurst),
Frank Williams (Sherwood),
Joe Simmons (Southborough North),
Julian Stanyer (Speldhurst & Bidborough),
Joy Podbury (Rusthall, Deputy Mayor of Borough),
James Scholes (Pantiles & St Mark’s, Mayor of Borough)

Absent Conservative councillors were:
Len Horwood (Pantiles & St Mark’s),
David Reilly (Pembury),
Patrick Thomson (Hawkhurst & Sandhurst)

All 8 Liberal Democrats on the Council voted against, as did the 5 Tunbridge Wells Alliance councillors, the 4 Labour councillors (3 represent Southborough & High Brooms), and one of the two independents (Rodney Atkins).  Councillor David Neve (Independent) abstained.

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The Calverley scheme would have delivered a new 1,200 seat theatre designed to support West End touring productions on the site of the existing Tunbridge Wells Great Hall car park. Money would also have been spent on new Borough Council offices and a replacement car park.

The demise of the £108million scheme had been predicted in an article on Southborough News in June.

Cllr Hayward from the Tunbridge Wells Alliance sits on the cross-party group set up by the council leadership that now has the job of looking at alternative options for the Town Hall and Assembly Hall. Cllr Hayward said he hopes the work of the committee can be expanded and made more transparent.

Town hall cu 2Cllr Hayward said he thought much lower cost estimates for updating both the Town Hall and the Assembly Hall would now be forthcoming from experts now that the Calverley Square scheme was off the table.

Reacting to the result of the historic vote on Tuesday night, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance Party Chairman, Robert Chris, told Southborough News: “It was great to see reason finally prevail.”

The Tunbridge Wells Alliance party says it is now a permanent force in local politics even though the most important original cause of its existence is no longer happening.

Mr Chris said “I recall that in July 2017, I stood up at a council meeting waving a Hoopers press release (arguing that the Calverley project threatened their business) and said that the project was now effectively dead and the only open question was how long it would take for the penny to drop in the council.  We now know the answer to that question: it was just over two years for the council to realise that the project had no future.”

You can listen to the interview with Robert Chris by clicking on this link:

Meanwhile I also spoke to two Conservatives with differing views. Cllr Sean Holden who had always opposed Calverley told me it was right that the council had taken notice of the public.  Meanwhile, the head of Development for the Borough, David Scott, told me he was “somewhat disappointed obviously” and argued “we cannot afford another five years of stagnation.”

You can listen to both interviews with Cllrs Holden and Scott here one after the other:

Developing the Calverley Scheme had already cost Tunbridge Wells and Southborough council tax payers £ 11million.

 

 

Calverley Square Theatre Project Abandoned

The plan for council taxpayers of Southborough and Tunbridge Wells to spend £108 million on a new theatre and office project has been thrown out by councillors at a meeting tonight.

Two votes were taken and the current scheme was rejected by 27 votes to just 12 supporters. There were 4 abstentions.

This was a heavy defeat for the Conservative run leadership of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council who wanted to press on with the Calverley Square scheme despite losing seats in this year’s local election.P1150568.JPG

The Council leadership afterwards asked for the existing cross party working group to suggest a way forward.

The scheme would have built a new 1,200 seat theatre designed to support West End touring productions on the site of the existing Tunbridge Wells Great Hall car park.

Money would also have been spent on new Borough Council offices and a new replacement car park.

Earlier the Conservative in charge of the project David Scott had told the meeting that the £ 108 million scheme was “the best thing that could happen to this town.”

Cllr David Scott

Cllr Scott (pictured above) argued a new theatre would increase the number of shoppers in the town. He suggested economic benefits of £34 million a year or £1.7 billion over the life of the project.

Cllr Scott argued that the alternative of upgrading the Assembly Hall theatre would involve a 9 metre increase in the ceiling height to incorporate a fly tower.

Cllr Scott said “any alternative (to Calverley project) would end up costing more.”

But Southborough’s only Conservative Borough Councillor Joe Simmons (below) opposed the Calverley scheme arguing that there was no evidence that residents wanted it.

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Cllr Simmons said the scheme was “a huge financial commitment” and “a massive throw of the dice”.

Also opposing the scheme Bob Atwood – a former Conservative councillor – said the new theatre was not popular and “a flawed concept”.

Local resident Angela Funnell said the scheme was “mortgaging our childrens’ future away.” She said future generations would be crippled by a “massive debt”.

Angela Funnell said £108 million of debt plus interest payments would take the cost to £173 million. She said that was “an obscene amount of money.”

The scheme was supported by the principal conductor of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra who said the orchestra would be killed off if the Assembly Hall it used was shut for a four year refurbishment.

Cllr Sean Holden of the Conservatives opposed the scheme saying it would be a ” vampire” or “albatross around the neck of the council for decades”. His conclusion was greeted by the loudest cheer and applause from the public gallery to that point.

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Cllr Holden (pictured above in right foreground) said he “didn’t go into politics to solve the ticket buying problems of middle-class theatre goers of Tunbridge Wells.”

Cllr Holden made his entire speech available to the press afterwards. See below:

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Labour’s Hugo Pound said refurbishing the Assembly Hall was possible. Cllr Pound said “the public had been disrespected.”

Cllr Pound argued there were also big uncertainties about the funding. He said the hoped-for funding of £5 million from Kent County Council and £9 million from selling the existing civic complex were not guaranteed and without that cash there would need to be more borrowing.

Cllr James Rands of Liberal Democrats said “the basic numbers in the business case do not add up.” He said the new big theatre would not provide the affordable entertainment that the Assembly Hall does now and “No one really knows why we are doing this.”

Cllr Linda Hall of the Conservatives called herself a “fiscal Conservative.” She said “projects of this nature were best left to the private sector.”

Cllr Hall said the Conservatives would be “wiped out” at the next local election if they pressed on with the Calverley Square project. She said the “interest payments would absorb 20% of our annual council tax take” and money would be better spent on affordable housing.

By contrast, Conservative Cllr Jane March said the enhanced Assembly Hall was “not the right offer” and said the proposed Calverley scheme would benefit the community.

Cllr Tom Dawlings of the Conservatives said the council had a prudent funding scheme to pay for the new cultural and leisure facilities and “it was affordable”.

Cllr Christian Atwood spoke for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance which now has 6 councillors since it was formed to oppose the project. Cllr Atwood said there were alternatives that “did not chew up the listed park.”

The Council leader Conservative Cllr McDermott said there would be a long delay before any alternative plans could go forward.

 

Building of Southborough Hub Starts Soon Amid Concerns About the Cost

The contractors Baxall last week finally signed up to build the long delayed Southborough Hub but concerns remain about the future financial burden of the project on the town’s council tax payers.

Southborough residents will benefit from a new medical centre, football pavilion, hall and library. The Hub (design shown below) will be built from pre-fabricated panels imported from Germany, with a ceremony to mark the start of work expected in November.

Nov18 Hub Air

The Southborough Town Council Hub lead, Nick Blackwell (Labour) said: “The Hub will bring us a much-needed focus and heart for Southborough”. Meanwhile, Kent County Councillor, Peter Oakford, (Conservative and Southborough resident) called it “an absolutely fabulous movement forward.”

The scheme nearly collapsed during the summer after senior National Health Service managers reduced what they were prepared to pay in ground rent to occupy the new building, which will be on land owned by Southborough Town Council (shown below on left).

Hub Nov18 MedicThe Tunbridge Wells MP, Greg Clark, was involved in a crisis meeting with representatives from the three councils involved in the scheme on 31stJuly which helped to resolve the impasse.

The St Andrew’s Medical Centre are currently funded by the NHS to pay £60,000 per year rent to occupy their current building which is owned by former doctors who funded the surgery building in the 1970s.

Southborough Town Council had been expecting rent of £67,000 per year to house the St Andrew’s doctors, which would have been used to support the long term maintenance of the new two-story building (the area shaded in purple below). But over the summer the NHS announced such a level of rent was not ‘value for money for the public purse’ and offered only £20,000 a year.

New ground floor Feb19 v2When the NHS threatened to pull the plug on its £4.2 million contribution towards building and fit out costs of the Hub, the Town Council were forced to give up on their expected income.

After the intervention from Greg Clark, the two other councils involved in the scheme agreed to assist the Town Council with any major future costs (like replacing the roof) during the expected future life of the building of 63 years.

So called “letters of comfort” were provided by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and Kent County Council. The NHS finally approved their investment in the scheme in August. The ground floor rooms in the new surgery are shown below:

New ground floor Feb19 drs

First floor rooms shown below:

New First floor doctors

In his briefing to the Town Council a week ago, Nick Blackwell stated: “This council has not yet agreed the Operations Management of the Hub despite the build being scheduled to start by the end of the year. This lack of forward planning now means that estimates of running costs are difficult to ascertain. Ideally this council would have committed to a position over a year ago.”

He continued: “We are also lacking a business case and there has been no attempt to realistically establish what the Service Charges might be for the users of the building”.

New First floor Rooms

Cllr Blackwell continued: “Our contract with Baxall has meant that cost increases to the project have been minimised but the uncertainty around Brexit has meant that that fluctuating exchange rate of sterling against the euro will impact on some parts of the project. We have been informed that these are well with the project contingencies.”

Cllr Blackwell refered to the “adverse financial position” that the council is now in. He said: “Some of these risks have to a small degree been minimised by the letters of comfort received from our partners at TWBC and KCC. There is also a small contribution for the first two years of the Hub opening from TWBC and KCC but these will in no way address the considerable financial outlay that that the Hub project has committed this council.”

Hub Nov18 T & MedicCllr Blackwell continued in his report to the Council: “All ongoing structural maintenance liabilities for the Community Medical Centre (CMC) will now be borne by this council for the 63 years of the lease on a flat £20,000 rent from the NHS which will quickly lose value.”

It is understood the unexpected loss in income from the rent from the doctors of £47,000pa represents about £6 per year for each Southborough adult (assuming a figure of 8,000 adults in the Town).

Over the summer Tanya Shaw, Business Manager at St Andrews Medical Centre, told the Times of Tunbridge Wells that she was ‘delighted’ on behalf of the surgery’s 9,000 patients that the scheme was going ahead. She said: “It has given us restored vigour and we are very much looking forward to developing new services we can put out to our patients.”

Hub Nov18 In Theat

The new hall (shown above) will be multi-purpose with retractable seats with the aim of accommodating a wider range of bookings than the Royal Victoria Hall Theatre that was demolished to make way for the scheme.

Cllr Blackwell (pictured below) told Southborough News this weekend: “We are extremely pleased that the Hub is finally progressing and that residents are seeing the investment in their town centre. It has been a long time aspiration for Southborough Town Council to see a community Hub.”

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He continued: “It has been contentious. The building will occupy the site of the much loved Royal Victoria Hall theatre and we have sacrificed precious green space in the centre of our town. Residents have grown weary of the delays and missed deadlines and the lack of financial transparency.”

Cllr Blackwell said: “We are working with a legacy of poor financial oversight which has led to a much reduced specification and we are dismayed that the long promised state-of the-art theatre has been not been realised.”

Hub Nov18 In LibrCllr Blackwell said: “We acknowledge that there is a great deal of work to be done in engaging the community. We need to ensure that local residents are listened to and feel a sense of ownership.  We want this to be a vibrant, well used building that does not become a burden to the taxpayers.”

Cllr Blackwell concluded: “The hard work still continues. We have started from scratch on a Business Case. And we will do everything we can for the residents of Southborough and High Brooms to ensure that this development pays its way.”

Tunbridge Wells Youth Football Club will get a new club house (shown below) thanks to funding of  £500,000 from Sport England, although the club members will have to pay for the internal fittings.

Hub Nov18 Soccer

The Hub is expected to be completed in Spring 2021.

The Hub plans and demolition of the old theatre were voted through by the previous Conservative administration that ran Southborough Town Council until Spring this year. There have been numerous previous articles on this blog about the scheme.

This is one example from one article in April 2017, where residents were given a pledge that their Council tax bill would not rise as a result of the Southborough Hub development.  See:
https://southborough-news.com/2017/04/25/pledge-that-southborough-hub-means-no-increase-in-council-tax-bills/

Cllr Peter Oakford (left in picture below) told the meeting in 2017 that: “The worst case scenario (for the theatre hire revenue) is based on 50 per cent of the revenue that used to be generated by the Royal Victoria Hall and – at that level – the facility – with what is coming in (in rent) from the doctors and the other areas – generates enough money that there will not need to be an increase in the precept for the Council tax.  Absolutely that’s what the numbers have said.”

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Reaction to the first version of this article on Facebook was mixed.  One comment was: “Brilliant news! Can’t wait for it all to be finished, finally start modernising Southborough.”

But another contributor referred to the decision of the previous Conservative administration to reject efforts to restore the 100 year old Royal Victoria Hall in favour of a new-build scheme with no business plan and wrote: “The whole project is a gold-plated monument to sheer arrogance.”