Members of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the next tranche of funds for the Civic Complex, despite the prospective leaseholder pulling out due to post-Brexit jitters.
The vote came after a debate by the Full Council in which several Conservative councillors spoke out against the decision to spend a further £2million on the scheme – putting them at odds with their own cabinet.
Their opposition stemmed from the disclosure that the corporate tenant who had previously shown a willingness to lease part of the office space at the proposed Mount Pleasant Avenue site has pulled out.
Current estimates for the project put the cost of building the 50,000 sq ft complex at £12million.
However, much of this cost was expected to be recouped over time, by letting approximately 70 per cent of the new council building to businesses for around £800,000 per annum.
But at the Full Council meeting last Wednesday, Council Leader David Jukes disclosed this was no longer guaranteed.
He said: “Up until recently we had a confirmed tenant to occupy about 30,000 sq ft of the offices, which would have given the council considerable revenue for years to come. But on June 29 the senior partner of that organisation contacted the Chief Executive of the council [William Benson] and myself to say that after the June 23 referendum everything had been put on hold.”
Whilst Cllr Jukes acknowledged that one of the key considerations before the project started was to line up a corporate leaseholder, he said it was now ‘incumbent’ on the council to proceed on to the next stage.
This will see plans reach the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) project stage three, defined as the ‘Developed Design’ level, in which detailed plans are drawn up.
His argument for pushing ahead despite the setback was that once this level was complete the council could draw up a marketing brochure which in turn would attract new tenants.
However, Conservative councillor Peter Bulman, who has criticised aspects of the project previously, said the council was now ‘putting the cart before the horse’ by pushing ahead.
He said: “We are being asked to fund a further exploration to see if this whole project is viable.
“Unfortunately we have already committed money but what we haven’t done is look at the financial implications of what we are proposing. I would like to see a report on that before I give my stamp of approval.”
His view was backed by fellow Conservative councillor Julian Stanyer, who raised concerns about the state of the commercial property market after the referendum and said the council ‘has no money’ to fund the necessary borrowing.
Cllr Claire Stewart, also a Conservative, said the project ‘made sense’ when there was a tenant ready but she was now ‘very reluctant’ to back further funding or take on more debt during a ‘time of uncertainty’.
However, other Conservative members of the council were supportive of the plan to continue funding for the project.
Cllr Sarah Hamilton said the council had a ‘bold vision’ for the future and could not afford to ‘dither around’ while the current Town Hall becomes increasingly unfit for purpose.
She added: “Yes it will cost money and yes there will be risk but I believe we have an exceptional team of financial officers and property professionals on the staff of this council and I am sure they have gone into these matters very thoroughly.”
Ultimately, the proposal was passed by 35 votes to four, with six abstentions – including all members of the opposition parties.
WHAT IS THE NEW CIVIC COMPLEX?
The borough council believe the current Town Hall is unsustainable and therefore are looking to relocate to a brand new building which will be built on the site of the council-owned Mount Pleasant Avenue car park.
Plans to refurbish and upgrade the current Town Hall would cost around £10million, which the council does not believe to be cost-effective.
Therefore they propose the development of a 50,000 sq ft complex which can then be partially let out to a corporate leaseholder, bringing in revenue and making the authority ‘self-financing’.
Construction of the new offices is estimated to cost approximately £12million, which would free up the current Town Hall to be reused by another institution or redeveloped.
However, there are also plans to relocate the Assembly Hall Theatre to the Great Hall car park site, bringing the total cost to £50million.
Costs could rise even further if the council believes there is a strong economic case to create a new underground car park, adding an additional £17million to the final price.