Eyesore cinema site to be sold at long last

    New deal will mean the end of years of misery

    Tunbridge Wells Cinema Site

    The 15-year fiasco surrounding the old cinema site may finally be coming to an end with the news that the land is about to be sold.

    The Times can reveal that negotiations are in the closing stages for the sale of the parcel of land that has become the borough’s most infamous eyesore.

    It is understood that a conditional offer for the town centre site has been accepted by the current owners, the Carlyle Group.

    Developer Bellhouse Joseph is believed to be the buyer in a deal that could see mixed retail built on the site within the next three years, including a small hotel.

    Applauded

    The move comes after intensive lobbying in recent months by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, spearheaded by council leader David Jukes.

    At a full council meeting last week, Cllr Jukes said: “I am delighted to say we have some movement on the cinema site.

    “Lawyers have now been appointed to do heads of terms and we understand agents from the developer will be in to see our planners very shortly to talk about what will be put on the site.

    “Hopefully, a planning application will be coming in by the end of the year.”

    Members applauded the announcement and mayor David Elliott said it was ‘good news indeed’ and ‘fingers crossed’.

    Developer Bellhouse Joseph has worked closely with the Carlyle Group since it bought the site in 2011.

    Although details over their arrangement have remained unclear, Land Registry documents show ownership of the site belongs to CEREP III, a £9 billion Luxembourg real estate fund managed by the Carlyle Group.

    Bellhouse Joseph has been heavily involved in several of the unsuccessful project proposals made for the site since the Carlyle Group took it over.

    When the Times put to Bellhouse Joseph that it had been named as the mystery buyer, a spokesman declined to comment.

    The news comes after an apparent bidding war by rival developers over the last several months.

    The Times understands there were nine bidders for the site that has been labelled an eyesore. No details of the winning offer have been released although one estate expert told this newspaper that the 1.3 acres would be worth in the region of £7.5 million.

    This would represent a significant loss for the Carlyle Group, which bought the site for £9.9 million. It is understood that several of the bids were under £10 million.

    A spokesman for the Carlyle Group said: “We can confirm that we are in talks with a potential purchaser for the cinema site in Royal Tunbridge Wells but cannot comment further at this stage.”

    Since it closed in 2000, several developers have taken over the old cinema site, only for their proposals to fall through.

    Other ideas to kick-start development, such as an ill-fated proposal by the local Liberal Democrats to buy the site through crowd funding, also failed.

    Part of the problem has been an existing covenant covering much of the 1.3-acre site, which prohibits the building of a new cinema and lasts until 2033.

    Architects, surveyors and potential investors have also pointed out other obstacles to be overcome, from the rail tunnel running underneath the site, to planning considerations and the gradient of the land. Some of these have been labelled ‘red herrings’.

    There have been many proposals for what should go on the land, ranging from a community garden, to a Waitrose, a nightclub, residential buildings and a mixed-use scheme.

    All of which, for their own reasons, have fallen short.

    This latest development, however, is considered by some closest to the deal to be ‘the best thing to happen in years’.

    POLITICAL REACTION

    MP Greg Clark told the Times:

    “We have endured this blight for far too long. Earlier this month I wrote to the managing director of Carlyle telling him to get on with selling the site.

    “I hope a new buyer has now been found and that they will accept the responsibility that comes with owning such a prominent piece of land at the heart of our beautiful town. They need to get on without further delay and produce a building of the high quality that Tunbridge Wells has the right to expect for that site.”

    BUSINESS REACTION

    Jo James, chief executive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, said: “After so many years, and different owners, we must now all hope that this is not another false dawn and that Tunbridge Wells can now bring forward a development worthy of the town.”

    THE POTENTIAL BUYER

    Bellhouse Joseph is a property developer which keeps a low profile.

    The firm was set up in 1983 by Ed Bellhouse and Jonathan Joseph. Major projects under-taken by the firm include a £3bn regeneration scheme in Cricklewood, northwest London, and a 76,000 sq ft office and retail scheme at 10 Fenchurch Street in the city.

    In 2007 the partnership announced they would split and the projects be divided between the pair. Ed Bellhouse continued to operate out of Bellhouse Joseph’s headquarters at 5-6 Cork Street in London.