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.

Cllr Hayward v2

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.

Civic Centre 1

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.

 

 

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