Plans to spend £90million on a new Civic Complex and theatre were finally passed by the Full Council last week amid claims that protestors had mounted a campaign fuelled by ‘negativity, anger and at times hate’.
At the end of a stormy meeting that saw Mayor Julie Soyke working hard to keep order and members of the public walking out at the frustration of a five hour session, members voted 30 to 13 with three abstentions in favour of the proposal.
The case for the council has been led by the Cabinet member for Civic Development Communications Councillor Tracy Moore who told the meeting: “There has been negativity, anger and at times hate. This campaign is not about me and accusations of this being a vanity project are a personal attack.
“This is the right project at the right time for Tunbridge Wells. We would be making the arts more accessible.”
Council Leader David Jukes said he wants Tunbridge Wells to follow in the footsteps of Canterbury’s Marlowe in securing a new theatre.
He was the first of many to speak in a heated meeting on Wednesday [December 6] which saw several members of the public walk out in protest.
“There is a desperate lack of office space in this town [which the new complex will provide] and the theatre will bring economic benefits to the town. The Marlowe in Canterbury produces an £18million economic benefit and the building is subsidy free.
“I would like to see a Marlowe in Tunbridge Wells. I am passionate about doing something for the youth generation, people want to come to Tunbridge Wells but what is there to keep them here?”
The council will now seek to obtain planning permission for the project that includes offices, a car park and council rooms to replace the existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall theatre.
Not all Tories were in favour of the development. Councillor Linda Hall (Benenden and Cranbrook) said: “I am most concerned about how the costs have escalated from £35million to £90million.
“In addition we do not have a public mandate. Councillors are getting emails of 15 to one against, while it is a mistake to compare Tunbridge Wells, a town, to Canterbury, a city with two universities.”
Councillor Claire Stewart (Paddock Wood West) added: “We are losing our community funding as money goes towards a theatre so that wealthy people don’t have to travel so far to watch musicals.”
Councillor Frank Williams put forward several amendments to the small print which were all voted down. He went to vote against the development.
The Sherwood member had carried out a referendum in his own ward where a reported 80 per cent of those taking part said they would not be in favour.
Both Labour members, Cllrs Graham Munn and Dianne Hill, along with two Liberal Democrats, Councillors Peter Lidstone and Ben Chapelard, voted against.
Cllr Chapelard said he recognised the need to build something ‘to put Tunbridge Wells on the map’ but questioned the ‘inflexible’ design of the theatre.
Former Lib Dem Mayor Councillor David Neve was the only opposition councillor to vote in favour. He revealed his St James’ ward residents had received leaflets with a superimposed image showing him throwing away £50 notes by protesters.
Four members of the public who walked out from the gallery voiced concerns about a ‘lack of democracy’. Mayor Julia Soyke had to repeatedly ask spectators to be quiet and not clap.
One argument started even before proceedings had begun with some members of the public unable to access the Council Chamber.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) had supplied an audio feed in a committee room and also on YouTube.
Four public speakers put forward their feelings against and four spoke in favour, including town jeweller Richard Burrell.
He said: “I think this is an exciting modern building that will be wonderful for the people of this town. Let’s stop being disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and be proud.”
Theatre producer and TW Alliance member Ben Van Grutten raised issue with the proposed loading station location for the theatre next to Hoopers department store and added: “The theatre has a flawed and inflexible design that is incapable of hosting events, civic dinners or other functions.”