Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council will, in October, decide whether to sell an area of land in the town centre.
The idea has not proved popular amongst many residents with a campaign group, Keep River Lawn Green, being formed to lead the opposition.
The site is split into three parts. The headline sale was the closure and disposal of the Teen and Twenty youth club which will make way for a new ‘state of the art’ medical centre.
While the loss of the historic youth centre originally raised concerns, it was the sale of the adjacent green space and former Citizens Advice Bureau building which drew the most criticism.
Protestors launched their own online survey that showed only seven per cent (33 of 491) supported the council’s current approach of selling assets it deems necessary to invest money in less risky national property investment funds.
And there was a clear sense that residents want a greater involvement in decision-making, with 90 per cent (445 of 491) saying they would like to see a full public consultation before the sale of publicly owned land or buildings.
Many questioned the fairness of having 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 (382 of 487).
Similarly, there was an appetite for a Tonbridge Town Council with 82 per cent (397 of 485) approving of the idea. Tonbridge does not have its own specific authority, unlike other areas of the borough which have parish or town councils.
Following the survey the Times put relevant questions to Council Leader Nicolas Heslop.
Do you recognise the survey at all?
“I wasn’t aware of the survey so I’m grateful to the Times of Tonbridge for bringing it to my attention. The Council will consider any evidence that is put before us before taking any future decisions, which will include public responses, along with reports from officers and financial information.
“In respect of any survey or petition, we need to be careful that it is interpreted appropriately and also keep in mind that the River Lawn campaign is evidently politically motivated. Some initial analysis of the petition shows that a significant number of people who signed it neither live in -Tonbridge or indeed within the Borough. We will maintain a balanced view in our considerations.”
Why do you think Tonbridge residents do not feel consulted on this issue?
“Actually, from the level of response it does seem that our consultation has raised a good level of awareness and enabled many people to express opinions that the Council will take into account.
“However, it is not the same to say that those completing the survey are representative of the whole population of Tonbridge or the Borough area. I would have thought with the significant amount of media coverage, including reports by the Times of Tonbridge in advance of the first Cabinet meeting, the intention to dispose of the land was clearly in the public domain. Consequently I am puzzled that consultation remains an issue.”
After the backlash from this proposal, do you think you will approach asset disposals differently in the future?
“This is a politically motivated campaign, centred round a small piece of land in an area where regeneration is required. It is worth saying that it also adjoins a very wide area of public open space where the Council has invested heavily to enable people to relax or pursue sport in the heart of Tonbridge.
“We are, of course, always prepared to learn and develop our policies to make sure that we are following best practice and perhaps in some cases explaining the wider context might be a helpful way to support any future disposals when they are brought forward.
“The Council has disposed of many small parcels of land over the years. We have a set of procedures for doing this which we have followed in this case. It must also be remembered that the Council is acting as a landowner and that ultimately the issue of development can only be tested through a planning application which will of course be subject to our normal levels of consultation as a Planning Authority.
“In any event, given the amount of coverage in the local press and the campaign that has been organised, we feel it is unlikely that people who wish to comment have not had the opportunity to do so.”
What are your thoughts on the idea of creating a Tonbridge Town Council?
“Residents are free to campaign for a Town Council, although the Borough Council currently already fulfils all of the functions of a Town Council for the ‘unparished’ Tonbridge area. Creating an additional tier of local government could be costly both in terms of set up costs and ongoing council tax demands.”