(L-R) Simon Weatherseed and Chris Gedge

PRESSURE is growing on the Borough Council to rethink its proposal for a new civic complex and theatre next to Calverley Grounds after a petition was launched over the weekend opposing the plans.

The organisation behind the petition, ‘Save Our Park’, was set up by residents concerned about both the effect the scheme will have on the aesthetics of the park, the suitability of the site and its £72million cost. They also have misgivings about what will replace the current Town Hall and the loss of car parking space.

Spearheaded by Simon Weatherseed and Chris Gedge, the group is promoting the renovation of the existing Town Hall and theatre as an alternative to the council’s plans.

“We have set up Save Our Park to act as an umbrella group for local residents and businesses who are in operation to the Council’s plans,” Mr Weatherseed said.

The group welcome the idea of a new theatre in the middle of town and the benefits this will bring, added Mr Gedge, but do not feel the proposed theatre, on the site of the Great Hall Car Park, is in the right place.

“Why not try and have something as part of a ‘cultural quarter’ as seen in other towns? Rather than splitting things apart?” said Mr Gedge, who points to the planned cultural and learning hub – which will amalgamate the existing library, museum and adult education centre into a larger open planned space – as an example of where the Council is taking the right approach.

Members of Save Our Park are also worried that once the Town Hall and Assembly Hall are vacated there will be another ‘dead zone’ in the middle of the town and the visual impact of the new development on Calverley Grounds.

“There are a lot of numbers floating around and they keep changing, and they keep going up”

“We were quite shocked that there were no restrictions about building into the park,” said Mr Weatherseed. “Visually we think it will be appalling, and we know the Council say ‘these are not the final plans’ but we haven’t seen them develop very much over the months since they were first presented.”

Businesses within the vicinity will lose out due to the loss of the Great Hall Car Park, Mr Weatherseed said, before claiming that even when the proposed underground car park is completed three years later there will still be a ‘net loss’ of spaces.

“Will businesses have deep enough pockets to survive three years without that parking?” Mr Gedge queried.

Research by the group led to the discovery of proposals put forward by consultants Stephen Browning in 2014 to revamp the Assembly Hall. They claim these plans would fulfil many of the objectives the Council hope to achieve with a brand new theatre, such as expanding it to 1,200 seats, but ‘for a fraction of the price’.

A bird’s eye view of the planned theatre (left) and civic complex (right)

Although £72 million is the official figure presented by the council, the pair say the authority is not ‘coming clean’ with regard to its figures and believe the true cost could be as high as £85-90million.

“There are a lot of numbers floating around and they keep changing, and they keep going up,” said Mr Weatherseed, adding: “I know we are not comparing like for like but the proposals put forward by Stephen Browning  to upgrade the Assembly Hall included a range of options costing between £10million and £25million.”

The pair acknowledge there are supporters of the scheme and say they ‘laud’ the Council for trying to do something to reinvigorate the town, but are urging for the authority to pull back from its current direction of travel.

“What we are trying to do is put an alternative forward and make people stop and think because we passionately believe this is the wrong place for the right project,” Mr Gedge said.

In response, Councillor Jane March, Cabinet member with responsibility for Tourism, Leisure and Economic Development said there ‘is no threat to Calverley Grounds’ and that the launch of a petition ‘might be a little premature’.

She added: “I understand it was started by a resident whose property overlooks the site of the proposed new theatre at the entrance to the park and I can assure him and others that the park is quite safe.

“I am excited by the plans that are being developed and am confident that that there is due regard being given to Calverley Grounds and a desire to dignify the entrance to this wonderful space. The consultants working on the project are going to be holding consultation events in May and I would encourage people to go along and find out more then.”

  • Details of the petition can be found on the council website under the ‘Have Your Say’ portal at tunbridgewells.gov.uk/council. The petition expires on July 3.