Members of the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Cabinet were told the proposed theatre to be built on the site of the Great Hall car park would be too small to be self-sustaining and that other sites should be considered instead.
The warning came from Liberal Democrat Leader Cllr Ben Chapelard at a meeting of the Cabinet on Wednesday [June 22].
Cllr Chapelard, who attended the meeting as a member of the public, said the proposed theatre would only have enough capacity for an audience of 1,200 people, meaning subsidies would be required.
He said the Liberal Democrats support the proposal to build a new theatre in principle: “The theatre sets an aspiration for the town, which wants to be put on the national cultural map, and it will have a positive impact on the local economy.”
But he added: “The Cabinet report mentions theatre operators would prefer a 1,500 seat theatre. This would be subsidy-free.
“Yet the Great Hall car park can only accommodate a theatre of 1,200, which would require an ongoing subsidy, so it appears it will never pay for itself.”
Cllr Chapelard said that in the climate of ‘austerity’ and with the possibility of a negative grant concerns have been raised over how it would be funded.
It also begged the question of whether it was the right site for a new theatre, and he described the process as ‘back to front’.
He said: “It feels like we are trying to squeeze a theatre on to that particular site, rather than say ‘this is the theatre we really want, let’s find a site where it will fit.’”
His concerns were echoed by Conservative councillor Peter Bulman, who had also attended the meeting as a member of the public.
Cllr Bulman said he ‘had heard’ that the estimated cost of the annual subsidy would be around £100,000 and questioned if this would be ‘viable’.
In response, David Candlin, Head of Economic Development, confirmed a ‘number of options’ had been available as to where a new theatre could go – some of which would allow a capacity of 1,500 seats.
These included building it adjacent to the Assembly Hall on the current civic complex –including the police station – or rebuilding where the Assembly Hall currently stands.
Another option would have been the old cinema site – which was recently sold – and other areas outside of council control.
He said these would incur considerable additional costs to purchase the land.
But he added: “It is correct, and I don’t think we have shied away from this, to say that a theatre of 1,200 on the Great Hall site would require a subsidy.
“But how the theatre is operated is yet to be decided in terms of how we move forward.”