After last Thursday’s by-election defeat, the Conservative leader of Tunbridge Wells Council has called for all political parties to work together in collaboration in the interests of the Borough.
The Conservative’s 23 council seats are now outnumbered by the 25 seats held by opposition parties.
In an interview with Southborough News, Cllr Tom Dawlings (pictured below) said he spoke regularly with the opposition group leaders.
Cllr Dawlings said: “I believe that most of the priorities I set out when I was appointed leader of the council in May are uncontroversial and my intention is to continue to work on those priorities in the best interest of the town and borough.”
He argued that the cross-party collaborative agreement on plans to rent out the surplus space in the Town Hall for “co-working” showed that the different groups were able to work effectively together.
Cllr Dawlings outlined new proposals including an electric vehicle mini-bus service for the centre of Tunbridge Wells as well as a potential new cycle and pedestrian route from Tunbridge Wells to Tonbridge.
He said the cabinet system of running councils meant that after the full council appointed him for a four year term as leader last May, he then appointed the cabinet, which is responsible for most day-to-day decisions in the council.
Cllr Dawlings said he was unsure quite what might now happen if the Conservatives were outvoted in full council, noting that Tunbridge Wells had “no recent experience in coping with a political group having no overall majority”.
The major issue now confronting the council is the budget. The draft budget recently received unanimous approval at November’s Finance and Governance Cabinet Advisory Board and will be published for public consultation in December.
The council is planning to draw on reserves to cover the budget shortfall caused by a loss of income from charges (as a result of the Covid pandemic) and rising costs of staff, utility bills, waste collection and parks maintenance.
The budget will be addressed by the full council in February. The council plans to increase its element of Council Tax by 2% (or £5 mimimum per household). Cllr Dawlings emphasised that the bulk of the Council Tax collected by the Borough is passed onto Kent County Council, Police, Fire services and for Parish and Town Councils.
On the Speldhurst and Bidbrough by-election result, Cllr Dawlings said the result “was hugely disappointing” and the Conseratives had had an “admirable candidate” in Rowena Stanyer who took 46% of the vote.
Cllr Dawlings pointed out that his party’s share of the vote was an improvement on the May election result when the Conservatives had held the seat.
Matthew Sankey (pictured below) won the Speldhurst and Bidborough seat last week for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance Party by just 58 votes with a 50% share of the vote.
The chair of Tunbridge Wells Alliance Nick Pope told Southborough News that the seat had been won by his party after “relentless campaigning”.
He said: “Matthew and volunteers were out canvassing and leafleting every day for 3 weeks across the ward. We knew it could only be won by working hard and speaking to as many people as possible.”
Nick Pope (pictured below) emphasised the recent slide in Conservative support, pointing out that just 3 ½ years ago, the Conservatives had a massive majority, holding 43 out of 48 seats on the Borough Council.
Nick Pope said: “It is up to Tom Dawlings, the Leader of the council, to decide what he should do. The Conservatives are still in control of the council with their majority. The Conservatives have all seats on the cabinet, all committee chairs and all committee vice-chairs. It is likely that little will change until the May elections.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative leader Cllr Tom Dawlings said he wanted to look at new options for a cycle and pedestrian route linking Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge.
Earlier plans for an “active travel” route along the A26 which Borough Council officers had worked on for some time and for which Government funding had been secured had had to be abandoned when these failed to get the support of Kent Highways officials due to safety concerns. Cllr Dawlings said he was now discussing alternative routes using existing Public Rights of Way but away from the A26.
Despite the strong campaign against development around Capel, Cllr Dawlings continued to argue the case for satisfying central Government housing demands by developing a new settlement and including new infrastructure for road improvements, new schools and medical and recreational facilities. He said this was less damaging than adding more houses to existing villages where the infrastructure was already overloaded.
Cllr Dawlings said the recent speech where Boris Johnson suggested that green fields should be protected from development had not yet turned into revised government policy, so the existing Local Plan including the new development at Capel was continuing its approval process and was currently with government-appointed planning inspectors.
Cllr Dawlings also noted that the Borough Council’s Local Plan covered more than housing. He argued the plans for Kingstanding Way on the North Farm Industrial estate provided: “wonderful business and employment opportunities.”
On the state of shops in Tunbridge Wells, Cllr Dawlings noted that the Pantiles area was currently “buzzing” and he expressed optimism that the empty BHS store would soon attract a new retailer.
He said the Council was looking at ways of helping the local economy by connecting the top and bottom of Tunbridge Wells more effectively.
He said there were plans to trial a light electric vehicle mini-bus style taxi around the centre of Tunbridge Wells. He said the idea was “really exciting” and could improve the attractiveness of the town.
Cllr Dawlings said there was cross-party support for efforts to upgrade the existing Town Hall building. The council is working to improve its energy efficiency and catch up with a backlog of maintenance including repairs to the leaking roof and repainting of the windows.
Having brought the building up to a high standard, the council would be renting out unused space to bring in new income streams and reduce costs for the council.
Cllr Dawlings said that council staff numbers had been cut by 30% in recent years, so there was 20,000 square feet of office space that could be rented out, with the hope of bringing 300 new office workers into the centre of the town.