Opposition sets out its stall on Tunbridge Wells Civic Complex site

    In two weeks’ time members of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council will vote on whether to accept a petition forcing the authority to ‘consider again’ their plans to build a new Civic Complex and theatre next to Calverley Grounds. The Times examines the arguments for and against the project

    SPEARHEADING the opposition to the £72million development is the organisation which set up the petition that has forced the issue to be debated on July 26, Save Our Park.

    Founded by local residents Simon Weatherseed and Chris Gedge, the group has managed to secure just over 1,800 signatories on their petition website, and more on paper.

    Accused by some of nimbyism, lacking ambition or even peddling outright myths, the Times has asked the organisation why it believes the current plans are ‘unsatisfactory’ and what alternative it would put forward:

     You say you are not against a new theatre in principle, but do not believe the GHCP (Great Hall Car Park) is the right place for it to be built and the reasons for this have been well documented. But what alternative(s) would you suggest?

    Save Our Park (SOP): The council has chosen a site prior to understanding whether it is the most appropriate site for its purpose. A decision to relocate the theatre should be supported by overwhelming evidence. No such evidence has been provided.

    Our preference, enthusiastically endorsed by our signatories, is for the council to redevelop the existing site.

    It may be that the right theatre for Tunbridge Wells cannot be accommodated on the Assembly Hall site. As yet, neither we nor the council know. If the evidence indicates superior sites, whether council-owned or privately-owned, then these should be considered.

    This should not be a ‘no theatre vs any theatre’ decision, but instead a process to design the optimal theatre, properly weighing the benefits and costs of all alternatives.

     

    How much would this alternative(s) cost?

    The question should not, exclusively, be one of cost, but also one of financial viability. A low-capacity theatre with weak food and beverage offering – which seems to be what the current plans offer – may require a much larger public subsidy than a high-capacity theatre with the right mix of bars and restaurants.

    A properly-informed council would base its decision on detailed financial viability studies of all alternatives. No such evidence has been collected for GHCP.

    The council has spent £4m to get to this point in its development. We do not have the resources to produce a comprehensive set of alternatives but there are indications that the project can be completed with far less disruption at a fraction of the £70m+ cost.

    The council’s own consultant, Stephen Browning Associates (SBA), indicated in 2014 that a 1,200 seat theatre could be accommodated on the current Assembly Hall site at a cost of £25m. Unlike the current proposal which only has 1,100 seats when the orchestra pit is in use, this satisfies the council’s minimum capacity threshold.

    We ask for the council to return to the drawing board to properly evaluate all sites.

     

    Are you opposed to the new Civic Complex portion of the development?

    Yes. Our petition relates to the scheme in its entirety. The development is inappropriate for a public park in the centre of town.

    There are seven main concerns:

    1) Loss of approximately 1,000sqm of a public park.

    2) The proposed buildings are not sympathetic of the area.

    3) By being on the western edge of the park the proposed buildings will cast long shadows in the afternoon and evening when the park is at its most popular.

    4) The proposal fails to include replacement public toilets, other than those in the theatre.

    5) There has been no commitment to retain the park’s café, with the council’s catering consultant recommending its closure so as not cannibalise sales from the theatre café.

    6) By leasing around two-thirds of the offices to private firms it will not feel like a civic suite, but instead like any other office block.

    7) If the project is to proceed it establishes a worrying precedent for the town’s other green spaces when demand for public outdoor space is on the rise.

     

    If the Civic Complex aspect gets given the go-ahead, what would you like to see done with the Town Hall?

    We feel it is important to keep the town hall in the centre of town so as to facilitate engagement between residents and their representatives.

    There are numerous ways that this engagement can be improved, either through redesigning the layout of the town hall or incorporating more functions within the building.

    Unfortunately, the current proposal, with the council in minority residency within the new Civic Complex, worsens this engagement. Very little public space has been provided in the new office block and by leasing the majority of the space to private firms there is a danger that residents of the town are made to feel unwelcome.

    Do you think you have a realistic chance of preventing the GHCP theatre?

    Yes, we feel that there is a realistic chance of preventing the GHCP theatre and new offices. With over 2,000 signatures SOP has received overwhelming support from residents, businesses and community interest groups to give a voice to the town’s silent majority that is vehemently opposed to the scheme. This weight of public opinion, combined with the almost exclusively negative comments in the council’s recent public consultation, should persuade the council to re-examine its proposals.

    If the Civic Complex aspect gets given the go-ahead, what would you like to see done with the Town Hall?

    We feel it is important to keep the town hall in the centre of town so as to facilitate engagement between residents and their representatives.

    There are numerous ways that this engagement can be improved, either through redesigning the layout of the town hall or incorporating more functions within the building.

    Unfortunately, the current proposal, with the council in minority residency within the new Civic Complex, worsens this engagement. Very little public space has been provided in the new office block and by leasing the majority of the space to private firms there is a danger that residents of the town are made to feel unwelcome.

    Do you think you have a realistic chance of preventing the GHCP theatre?

    Yes, we feel that there is a realistic chance of preventing the GHCP theatre and new offices. With over 2,000 signatures SOP has received overwhelming support from residents, businesses and community interest groups to give a voice to the town’s silent majority that is vehemently opposed to the scheme. This weight of public opinion, combined with the almost exclusively negative comments in the council’s recent public consultation, should persuade the council to re-examine its proposals.

    Next week Council Leader David Jukes and Cllr Tracey Moore tell the Times why they think the project is right for the town…