Survey shows depth of opposition to the controversial sale of River Lawn site

THE views of hundreds of Tonbridge residents show that the borough council is ‘completely out of step’ with public opinion, according to River Lawn campaigners trying to save the town site.

Following Cllr Trudy Dean’s call for ‘the fullest possible consultation’ on the site that fulfils ‘the spirit of the law, not just the letter’, the Keep River Lawn Green group decided to take matters into their own hands.

The council plans to sell River Lawn and the site of the old Citizens Advice Bureau on River Walk and invest the money in property funds as they look to plug a shortfall of money from central government. The final decision will be made at the Cabinet meeting on October 11.

The campaigners made efforts to draw from a neutral sample of people, posting the ten-question survey on to three prominent online community pages: Tonbridge Mums, Tonbridge Gang and Tonbridge Daily.

The poll did not indicate any connection to the Keep River Lawn Green group, was not circulated among its own members, and was entitled ‘Town Centre Survey’.

Just under 500 people responded, with results pointing to a strong disapproval of the council’s current asset strategy.

Only seven per cent (33 of 484) supported the borough council’s current approach of selling the assets it deems necessary to invest money in less risky national property investment funds.

And there was a clear sense that residents desire a greater involvement in decision-making, with 90 per cent (438 of 484) saying they would like to see a full public consultation before the sale of publicly owned land or buildings.

The River Lawn issue ignited a discussion of representation, with many questioning the fairness of leaving the decision in the hands of the six-member Cabinet rather than the 54-strong Full Council.
In the survey, 78 per cent of people felt the decision should lie with every representative.

Similarly, there was an appetite for a Tonbridge Town Council, with 82 per cent (397 of 485) approving the idea. Tonbridge is peculiar in that it does not have its own specific authority, unlike other areas of the borough which have parish or town councils.

Campaigner Mark Hood, who designed the survey, said: “Tonbridge residents feel completely unengaged from decision making, as demonstrated by the low turnout at a recent by-election and the huge majority who desire a town council.

“Our councillors don’t hold surgeries, and in our experience don’t reply to letters and emails.
“It isn’t just distance that makes the decisions made at Kings Hill remote.”

Cllr Dean, a Liberal Democrat who represents Larkfield, said: “I think it’s about time Tonbridge got itself a town council, as the norm in the rest of the country would be that a Tonbridge Town Council would own, and therefore control, this sort of public space, rather than its future being controlled by borough councillors as far away as Snodland and Borough Green.”

  • Council Leader Nicolas Heslop described Keep River Lawn Green as ‘a politically motivated campaign’ and questioned the legitimacy of their earlier petitions. The Times asked Cllr Heslop for his views on the survey. For his full response, click here.