A SOUTHBOROUGH councillor has risked the wrath of the council’s leadership by holding his own referendum on the proposed Civic Complex.
Cllr Joe Simmons has rejected the claims of Council Leader David Jukes that a referendum on the £72million project is unnecessary and has begun circulating ballots throughout his ward.
The Conservative Southborough North representative, who was elected in 2015, said he wanted to hear the views of those he represents and hopes they respond in large numbers.
In particular, he wished to hear from the ‘silent majority’ the leadershership have claimed support the development, which will see a new Town Hall and Theatre built on two car parks adjacent to the main entrance of Calverley Grounds.
“This is a critical decision for the Council”
Expressing his position in a letter attached to the ballot, Cllr Simmons reveals the result of his mini-referendum will determine whether he votes for or against the project later in the year.
He states: “A wide range of views have already been expressed by many interested individuals and groups – some in favour and some against the project.
“So I would like to assess the views of residents in Southborough North on this project and ask whether you would wish me to vote for the proposal or against it when it comes before Council.
“This is a critical decision for the Council. It will have significant long term implications for the Borough, for current residents and for our children/grandchildren too. So I would very much appreciate knowing how you feel about it.”
Cllr Simmons is hand delivering the ballots to all 3,200 electors in his ward, with any incidental costs will be met by himself.
Ballot boxes have been supplied at three shops in the area; Rusbridge Family Bakery; Osbourne Convenience Store and Tesco Express.
In addition, he gives the option of residents dropping off their ballots directly at his house in Harland Way or using a free post service to return it to the West Kent Conservatives.
His decision to hold his own poll is likely to infuriate advocate of the project and embolden opponents and those who have urged for a borough-wide referendum.
The deadline for casting the ballot is September 15.
Several Conservative councillors including, Beverley Palmer, Bill Hills, James Hannan, Catherine Rankin and Peter Bulman, are on record in council minutes as either supporting the idea of, or enquiring into, the possibility a referendum.
Liberal Democrat members of the council have also backed a borough-wide referendum.
Opposition to the project ranges from its impact on Calverley Grounds to the cost of the project, currently estimated at £72million.
Most of this will come from borrowing, with annual interest payments costing around £2.5million for fifty years.
So far £4million has been spent on drawing up plans and consultations.
“It is the responsibility of each councillor to canvass the views of the residents”
The council argues the new Civic Complex and Theatre will deliver a £14million annual boost to the economy.
It will also cost approximately £42 million to refurbish the Assembly Hall and current Town Hall in order to make them fit for purpose, they say.
Cllr Tracy Moore, who has taken a lead role in advocating the new development, has previously told the Times that those councillors calling for a referendum were seeking to ‘absolve themselves of responsibility’ and failing to show leadership.
Responding to the latest development, Cllr Moore said: “I feel it is the responsibility of each councillor to canvass the views of the residents they represent. There are many ways of doing so and Cllr Simmons’s ‘vote’ is one.”
Cllr Moore said was she was ‘pleased’ her colleague had included the Council’s dedicated civic complex website on the ballot but said it made one ‘significant omission’.
“It is the commitment we have made that council tax will not increase to pay for this project. That is an important point that deserves repeating.
“Finally, the deadline he has set of 15th September is a month before the stage 3 reports are likely to be released in the public domain.
“I have consistently maintained that both councillors and members of the public should make an informed decision whether to proceed with the new civic centre and theatre.
“RIBA [Royal Institute of British Archirtects] stage 3 will provide reports on the detailed design, on which an evidence-based decision to proceed can be made. Indeed that next decision gateway is most likely to be not until the December meeting of full council.”
The Liberal Democrat view:
Cllr Peter Lidstone: “I am surprised by this move. Councillor Simmons did not support the Liberal Democrat motion for a Borough-wide referendum at last month’s Full Council.
The proposed civic site and theatre project will impact on a generation of Tunbridge Wells taxpayers. Therefore it’s only right that residents across the whole Borough of Tunbridge Wells give us the mandate to go ahead.”
Praise from Save Our Park
Save Our Park ‘commends’ Cllr Simmons for seeking the views of his constituents on and wishes more Councillors were interested in their constituents’ opinions, founder Chris Gedge said.
But he warned it may be difficult to make an informed decision as the evidence has not been collected to demonstrate that this project ‘is the best among the available options’.
What will happen to the existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall, or whether the proposed theatre will be operationally viable without access to Hoopers’ car park, are just some ‘critical questions’ still unanswered.
“The much anticipated Stage 3 report will not provide these answers and is not designed to,” he said, adding: “How can the public or Councillors express a sensible view about this project in the absence of properly informed answers to these crucial questions?”