THE row over plans to build a civic complex and theatre in Calverley Grounds will come to a head tonight when the Full Councill debate a petition aimed at thwarting the project.
Recriminations, accusations and counter-accusations have come to characterise the public debate over the most controversial development proposal in the town for decades.
Advocates of the scheme – including the council leadership and most of the Conservative members – argue the current Town Hall and Assembly Hall theatre are no longer fit for purpose and the cost of renovation of the existing buildings is uneconomic.
They also claim a new 1,200-seat theatre and civic complex will boost the local economy, rejuvenate the town’s culture offer and provide much-needed office space for local businesses .
Opponents – led by petition organisers Save Our Park, the Friends of Calverley Grounds plus some Tory councillors – fear the economic burden of the £72million project will be a drain on taxpayers and worry about its impact on the Grade II listed park.
“A clear example of where representatives of the Borough Council have gone out of their way to misinform readers and discredit those that oppose the development”
Each side has accused the other of pedalling ‘myths’ and outright lies.
Last week, the Times ran an exclusive unedited interview with Council Leader David Jukes and stalwart project supporter Cllr Tracy Moore in which the pair accused the petition organisers of nimbyism [not in my back yard]; stating they had a ‘vested interest’ in halting the development and of using ‘frightening’ assertions based on ‘misinformation’ to get people to sign up.
In an email sent on Monday to borough councillors Friends of Calverley Grounds Chair Nicholas Pope hit back. He said the story was ‘a clear example of where representatives of the Borough Council have gone out of their way to misinform readers and discredit those that oppose the development.”
Mr Pope takes aim at council assertions the ‘park is not at risk’ by saying over two per cent (993 square metres) will be built on and many mature trees will be lost.
He questions Cllr Moore’s assertion that the scheme is approved by Historic England by claiming the support is ‘informal’ and ‘does not relate to the current design, or probably any earlier designs either’.
Cllr Moore’s claim that sixth-form pupils she had visited were ‘broadly enthusiastic about the project’ is also targeted by Mr Pope, who claims that a teacher present at the talks suggested the pupils were ambivalent at best.
Mr Pope describes Cllr Juke’s comment that the petition claims 20 per cent of Calverley Grounds will be covered by concrete as ‘blatantly untrue’, adding: “The Save Our Park petition has never made such ridiculous claims.”
What will happen tonight?
During this evening’s meeting, members will be voting on whether or not they agree with the principle of the 1,900 name petition. They have three options: Outright rejection of its premise, acceptance of the premise ‘in principle’ and a decision to start a process of reviewing the project, or a middle ground of referring parts or all of the scheme back to a committee ‘for investigation’.
What if the petition is accepted?
As it can only be accepted ‘in principle’, the council is under no obligation to scrap the scheme outright if the vote goes against the leadership, only to ‘note’ the result.
However, a large question mark will then hang over the next Full Council vote on whether to proceed to the next stage when more funding will needed.
Lib Dems muddy waters
with referendum call
Liberal Democrats are calling for a referendum on the plan for a new town hall, offices and theatre.
Lib Dem Councillor Ben Chapelard (St James), Leader of the opposition, said: “The council will need to find £2.4m every year for the next 50 years to pay back the loan to build a new civic centre and theatre.
“Repaying the loan will have to come from increases in council tax and cuts to council services.
“The magnitude of the cuts needed to repay £2.4m annually will be enormous. It will affect the residents’ day to day experience of council services.
“It is only right that residents should have a say as to whether these cuts and tax rises are a price they are prepared to pay for these public buildings.
“A borough-wide referendum allows everyone who will ultimately be responsible for the debt to have a voice.”
The council strongly reject any suggestion that tax rises will be used to pay for the scheme.
Any referendum is likely to cost around £72,000.
Project is wrong priority
Labour Cllr Dianne Hill (Southborough & High Brooms) said: “ The Party isn’t in principle opposed to a renovated, revitalised and maybe new Civic Complex, but we are opposed to vanity projects that are hugely expensive and ignore the daily needs of most of the town’s residents.
“Tunbridge Wells is far from unique in facing its own housing crisis. Why isn’t this Conservative Council investing money on imaginative ways of building houses to rent? Other councils are doing this, why isn’t ours?”