HISTORIC England is ‘prepared to be persuaded’ about the case for a new Civic Complex and Theatre next to Calverley Ground the organisation has said in a highly conditional statement.

In a letter to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council outlining its position, the organisation – whose remit includes acting as the Government’s statutory adviser on all aspects of the historic environment – admitted the development will cause ‘some harm’ to Calverley Park.

Among the concerns raised by Historic England is what will become of the existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall, which make ‘a major contribution to the townscape’.

Acknowledging there is a case to say they are no longer fit for purpose, the organisation bolsters the Council’s claim that moving is the only viable option, stating: “The alterations that could be necessary to continue using the existing buildings might be both harmful to their significance and disruptive to the continuing provision of services.”

Warning the Town Hall and Assembly Hall ‘must not’ be left vacant or without a plan to fill them, Historic England said it is currently working with the Council to find a future for them. Regarding Caverley Grounds, the organisation believes the western edge of the park is already ‘spoiled’ by the Great Hall and Mount Pleasant Avenue car parks, both of which will form the footprint of the £72 million development. It describes replacing them as ‘an opportunity for enhancement’ of this edge of the park and notes ‘other public benefits’.

Historic England states: “We would expect the park around any new building to be restored and, wherever possible, enhanced. A detailed landscaping scheme will therefore need to be provided.” An exercise to evaluate how the planned buildings will look from various viewpoints around the town must also be undertaken.

The letter ends: “This is a cherished part of the town and we acknowledge that there will be some harm caused to Calverley Park. Heritage conservation is all about weighing competing public interests in the balance. If the harm is minimised and the enhancement of the park maximised, we are prepared to be persuaded that a case for the development can be made.”

In response Councillor Alan McDermott, Cabinet Member with responsibility for Planning, said the council has ‘pledged’ to ensure the Town Hall and Assembly Hall Theatre will not be left vacant. It is also ‘committed’ to restoring the edge of the park and ensuring ‘a detailed landscaping scheme put in place.’

He added: “We share Historic England’s view regarding this and we will continue to work with them in order to ensure the project meets with their full approval.”

CIVIC COMPLEX COMMENT:

SAVE OUR PARK:
Chris Gedge, spokesman for the Save Our Park campaign – which successfully forced a full council debate on the issue – said it ‘welcomes’ the statement from Historic England, but they ‘encourage’ the organisation to press the council into remaining in its current offices. He added: “We agree with Historic England that Calverley Grounds is a cherished part of the town and that the proposed development will cause harm to the grade II registered parkland. Whilst the proposed buildings will replace car parks on the western boundary their scale, which at 26m is five times the height of the existing car park and more than twice the height of the current tallest building on the park perimeter, threaten to dominate a popular public park.”

FRIENDS OF CALVERLEY GROUNDS:
Chairman Nicholas Pope said Friends of Calverley Grounds (FOCG) ‘is in agreement’ with Historic England that the existing Town Hall and the Assembly Hall Theatre are out of date and not suitable for modern working and larger theatre productions. However, he questioned if the buildings can be preserved without major changes to the internal layout, especially if converted to residential use as the Council is on record as considering. Although the current car parks are not ideal, they are either not visible from the park or, in the case of the Great Hall car park, small in scale and have a ‘minor impact on the view’. This contrasts with the ‘dominant buildings’ that will replace them. “FoCG believes there are better ways, with a much lower impact on the park, to tidy up the western edge of Calverley Grounds. FoCG is particularly uncomfortable that the proposed development would take public green space to build an office largely used for commercial, not civic, use.”