TUNBRIDGE WELLS is facing an exodus of high-skilled workers after stockbroker AJ Bell admitted it has failed to find any suitable office space in the town.
More than 100 jobs could be moved to either Manchester or London, with a staff consultation already underway aimed at ‘offering support’ to those affected.
News of the planned move has come as a ‘complete shock’ to staff some of whom have worked at the company for a decade.
AJ Bell has found itself in this position after the owner of Calverley House applied for planning permission to convert the large town-centre office block, on the corner of Camden Road and Calverley Road, into residential apartments.
Dozens of smaller companies previously housed in the building have been forced to relocate as their leases expired. Some have already moved out of town.
Despite recognising the damage to the business community, the Council said they are powerless to stop the plans for the conversion, submitted last year, because of central Government rules called ‘permitted development’.
“We have been looking for more office space in town but as yet we have not found anything suitable.”
The lease for AJ Bell does not run out until next October, but the consultation has been ongoing for around two weeks and one member of staff told the Times they thought people could be moved as soon as January – speculation the company denies.
Company spokesman Charlie Musson said on Monday (October 2) the Manchester-based firm appreciates the process is ‘unsettling’ for staff – some who have worked at the broker since it moved to the town in 2007 – and the company is doing all they can to retain them.
“We have been looking for more office space in town but as yet we have not found anything suitable.
“As a growing business we also need to ensure any new space can hold more staff than we currently have down here and none is available. We have had a couple of places pointed out but nothing we look at fits the bill.”
He said it was ‘too early’ to rule anything out, but the consultation is coinciding with a business-wide review into how to improve ‘company processes’. Moving the roles to more central offices in Manchester or London could aid that objective, he admitted.
The amount of office sector floor space across the borough has declined by around 1,250sqm per year since 2000, records show.
Data from the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), the department responsible for collecting business rates, reveals the 163,000sqm of floor space available in the 2000/1 financial year fell to 143,000sqm by 2015/16.
The trend is particularly acute in the town centre with the conversion of prime sites such as Cleverly House, Westcombe House, Vale House and offices in Lonsdale Gardens either in the process or completed.
Calverley House alone covers a total area of 6100sqm of office space. An application was submitted for change of use in August last year with recent plans showing the building is to be converted into 80 flats.
Cllr Jane March, Cabinet member with responsibility Economic Development described permitted development as a ‘detrimental’ to the local economy, adding the council is taking steps to try and keep AJ Bell in the town.
She said: “Planning regulations are such that it is relatively easy and financially attractive for office accommodation to be converted to residential accommodation but this can be to the detriment of the local economy.
“Council officers are talking to AJ Bell to see if we can help them in their search for premises that will allow them to remain in Tunbridge Wells.”
“The prospect of losing 100 skilled jobs to Manchester comes as a blow to the town.”
Business leaders have also criticised permitted development rights and the impact they are having on the Tunbridge Wells economy.
Jo James, Chief Executive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, said: “The prospect of losing 100 skilled jobs to Manchester comes as a blow to the town. It highlights the negative impact that Permitted Development Rights legislation is having on the ability of local businesses to find suitable accommodation.
“This news clearly shows the need for new commercial premises in the town, but it looks like the proposed new office accommodation as part of the new Civic Centre complex in given the go-ahead will come too late to keep AJ Bell in Tunbridge Wells.”
Who are AJ Bell?
Founded in 1995 by Andy Bell (pictured), the company specialises in offering retail investors stock broking accounts and services. Its Tunbridge Wells office played a ‘transformational’ part in the expansion of the firm, which now has 650 staff and manages £36.3 billion in assets.
Its Tunbridge Wells office is one of three, the other two being in Manchester and London, and came into being in 2007 when Mr Bell bought out a small broker firm in town called Lawshare. He did so because up until then the company was relying on the infrastructure and services of other brokers to carry out share dealing for their clients and he wanted to bring these facilities in house.
Describing how important the acquisition was to the company, Mr Bell told the Times: “It was not the biggest deal we have made in terms of cost but it has made the biggest difference to our business model. It really was a transformational acquisition.”
Is Wellington Gate next?
Office space across the town is becoming scarcer. There have been very few developments in recent years which help buck that trend – such as the Cripps building on Mount Ephraim. In general though any new additions are too small to stem the decline in floor space, with most new office buildings focusing on the micro-business and start up market. Very few cater for large established firms.
Wellington Gate, next to the Pitcher and Piano bar on Church Road, is another example of a building which accommodates the type of high-profile company the town can ill-afford to lose, such as Buss Murton solicitors and Coutts bank.
However, a question mark hangs over the future of the building which for the last three years has had an application to convert it into residential on file at the council, marked ‘prior approval not required’.