Plans to develop a £3.5million indoor electric go-karting track and laser tag centre near High Brooms station were rejected by the borough council last week partly on the grounds the initiative would have created the wrong type of jobs.
The Planning Committee at Southborough Town Council had given the green light to a scheme that would have created full-time and part-time jobs in leisure. The council wanted light industry workers.
There was no objection from the Environment Agency, which noted the proposed project was a ‘low environmental risk’.
The Federation of Small Businesses’ Development Manager, Alison Parmar, said: “Small businesses in general drive local jobs, therefore not giving planning permission because of the ‘class’ of job offered seems unhelpful.”
The decision by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s Planning Committee to turn down the application came after the company behind the scheme, Markerstudy Leisure, refused to pay Kent County Council [KCC] £52,000 for road improvements.
The building, in Chapman Way, has been empty since August, when it was sold by a printing firm.
A Markerstudy spokesman said: “This is a disappointing decision in a town that is supposed to be working hard to attract and retain businesses. It sends out the entirely wrong message.
“To suggest the 25 full-time and part-time jobs were not acceptable shows a degree of being out of touch that most people in the real world will find hard to understand.
“These days, a job is a job, particularly if you are a young person looking for work. And these jobs would have appealed to young people.”
The unit was previously owned by Kevin Stanton of Fox Print, who said: “This has always been a challenging site when it comes light industry, and to the best of my knowledge businesses are not fighting to use the unit since we sold the building, moving the 30 staff to our head office in Longfield Road.
“Surely new jobs in leisure are better than no jobs at all?”
The Markerstudy spokesperson said the group, which has invested £65million in the town in the last decade, will not appeal the decision and will withdraw the application.
It had planned to invest a further £10million in local projects over the next year and a half. The company would now focus on investing in other towns in the South East.
Alison Parmar of the Federation of Small Businesses further commented: “At the moment small businesses are facing a raft of challenges; auto-enrolment, National Living Wage and massive increases in business rates are just a few.
“Complex planning requirements put additional hurdles in the way of local businesses and overall economic development.”
It is understood the 14 members of the borough council’s Planning Committee voted almost unanimously – bar one abstention – to reject the development on March 8, partly on the grounds that it does not meet employment criteria.
Council documents drawn up by planning officers recommended a rejection, stating the proposed development would take place in a ‘Key Employment Area’, and that B-category industry-based jobs are desired.
The go-karting track and laser tag jobs would not be classed as B-category.
Council officers even acknowledged the advantages of the project, stating: “It is accepted that the application proposal will provide a new leisure facility which is to be welcomed and generates employment.”
They went on to state the ‘overriding principle’ is for the area to be used for B-category employment, and claimed there had been no effort to see if the unit could be reused for light industrial purposes.
On behalf of the applicant, Roger Nightingale of planning and development consultants Kember Loudon Williams, argued before the Planning Committee that the jobs were ‘very similar’ to what a typical Class B1 light industrial use might generate.
He added: “It makes no sense to prevent these jobs coming forward just because they do not happen to fall within a Class B1 use class. There is no reason to think that a B1 use is, by definition, any more valuable than a job in a non-B1 use.
“High Brooms Industrial Estate is fundamentally intended to be a commercial area, creating employment and economic activity. This is exactly what this proposal would do.”
Mr Nightingale said it was ‘unreasonable’ to reject the application on the basis that the analysis of town centre locations had not been considered.
‘Markerstudy Leisure refused to pay a £52,000 developer contribution to improve the local roads’
He added: “As every member of the committee will know, there are clearly no suitable sites in Tunbridge Wells Town Centre, or on the edge of the town centre, that are available for, or appropriate for, this use.”
While council officers acknowledged the go-karting track will require ‘a large floorplate’ and there ‘are no such sites within Tunbridge Wells town centre which would be able to accommodate such a use’, they argued that no assessment was made to see if the laser tag could be based in the town centre.
They added: “It has not been demonstrated within the application as to why the two uses need to be located together, and no business model has been provided as such.”
The final major point of contention was the request for a £52,000 contribution to KCC Highways, who claim the proposed traffic generation ‘is significant’ and the money would be needed for local road improvements. Part of this is based on the fact the proposals would require an extension on the current unit.
Mr Nightingale pointed to previous examples of light industrial units in the area being converted to leisure facilities and not being required to pay a contribution. In addition, nearby public transport links would alleviate some of the additional traffic.
He added: “It is unreasonable to pick out this proposal and treat it differently.”
However, Southborough Town Council recommended the application be approved. Cllr Trevor Poile said they found ‘no grounds’ to recommend an objection as they did not identify any detrimental impact on the local neighbourhood.
Southborough Cllr David Street said he saw ‘no reason’ why it should be turned down at borough level. He added that he supported the idea in principle as a means of providing activities for young people in the area.
The Tunbridge Wells Cabinet member with responsibility for Planning and Transportation, Cllr Alan McDermott, said:
“The Planning Committee spent a long time discussing the application and their final decision was taken purely on planning grounds. This was in line with the planning team’s recommendation as explained in the report presented to the committee.”
The Markerstudy spokesman said the company’s leisure arm, which employs hundreds of people in the area, will no longer invest in the town after continuously meeting resistance to its proposals.
He said: “After being committed to growing our businesses, employment and economic support in the borough, investing over £65million in the last decade, we have taken the decision to withdraw all further plans and future funding for our Leisure Division to increase its developments in the town. We will now focus our attention on other areas of the South East.”
Plans by Markerstudy in 2014 to create a Father Christmas World at Salomons Estate were also rejected by the borough council.
The Times newspaper is part of Markerstudy Leisure.