A new civic centre in Tunbridge Wells came a step closer with the announcement yesterday [Tuesday] that a planning application could be submitted by November.
The £12million scheme will see 50,000 sq ft of office space developed on the site of Mount Pleasant Avenue car park, which is currently leased by AXA, and is part of the council’s five-year plan to become a self-financing authority.
The civic centre would free up the existing Town Hall building for possible use as a university campus. There are also plans to relocate the Assembly Hall Theatre to the Great Hall car park site, bringing the total cost to £50million.
“With cutbacks to central government funding this council has to be in a position where we are self-sufficient. This either means we increase car park charges – which I don’t think many people will be pleased about – or we utilise our real estate,” explained Council Leader David Jukes.
Plans to refurbish and upgrade the current Town Hall would cost around £10million, which the council does not believe to be cost-effective.
However, the new complex will eventually pay for itself, as the council believes it can let out approximately 30,000 sq ft of the planned office space for around £750,000 a year. The council may also dig a new underground car park beneath the planned theatre providing income from 300 spaces.
Recent progress has seen the development reach the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) project stage two, defined as the ‘concept design’ level.
RIBA recommends any planning application be submitted by the end of stage three, ‘Developed Design’, which the council expects to reach by November.
Cllr Jukes said the project was likely to be largely funded through borrowing off the government’s Public Works Loan Board at what he described as ‘very favourable’ interest rates.
He added: “We will be paying it back over a very long period of time, but all we have to do is keep on top of the interest.
“We can do this either by selling off some of our other properties or re-letting them, but as the value of the new complex increases it will also be adding to the value of our balance sheet.
“In the end we will be a very financially healthy organisation.”
Cllr Jukes also moved to quell fears over the fate of the current Town Hall, saying he ‘guaranteed’ it would not be pulled down, although he did not rule out some practical modifications to the large town centre complex.
In addition he reiterated his desire to see it turned into a viable university campus, saying conversations on the subject were ongoing, adding: “This would be the ideal situation if it had a good commercial outcome as it would meet the aspirations of Tunbridge Wells.”