The campaign to save River Lawn will carry on despite the decision of the Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council [TMBC] Cabinet to sell the land to private developers.
The protest group Keep River Lawn Green are consulting property experts about certain aspects of the controversial sale and will also be calling for the creation of a town council to handle the disposal of publicly owned assets.
The Times has learned that the sale was always going to be approved – despite widespread acrimony – in order to make up the shortfall after TMBC had offered the adjacent Teen & Twenty Club site on River Walk to developers at a discount.
Last week the Cabinet voted by four to one at Kings Hill to proceed with the sale for the construction of housing despite the vocal opposition of more than half a dozen of its own councillors.
The representatives who were not in favour of the deal spoke at the meeting but were barred from casting votes because the TMBC constitution states that decisions do not have to be put to Full Council.
TMBC is unique among councils in West Kent and East Sussex after it changed its constitution in 2010 so that a six-person Cabinet could make important decisions, such as the disposal of public land, without consulting the other 48 councillors.
The decision was made by five people instead of six – Cllr Sophie Shrubsole, Cabibet member with portfolio of Housing, left her apologies for absence because she was attending to ‘business in northern France’.
The lone dissenting voice in the Cabinet was Cllr Maria Heslop, who described the vote as ‘possibly the hardest decision I have ever had to make’.
The Cabinet member for Community Services accepted that the public space was being sold in order to protect services across the borough, which are being hit hard by a £1.6million budget deficit.
But the councillor for Vauxhall, who is married to council Leader Nicolas Heslop, added: “Without certainty as to what will go on this piece of land I cannot approve this sale.
“I also felt, as the only south Tonbridge cabinet member, I had a responsibility to reflect the significant opposition that local people have expressed to the plans to sell.
Earlier in the week, Mrs Heslop had revealed that the council had offered to sell the adjacent Teen and Twenty Club – which is being bought by Assura at a discount for a new medical centre – for a sum of £750,000.
However, the TMBC has assured the Times that River Lawn and the old CAB building will not be sold at less than market value, but at the highest price they can reach at auction or by public tender.
And Cllr Sarah Spence (Vauxhall ward), an opponent of the sale, revealed: “The sale of River Lawn was seen as necessary to balance the books because of the cut-price deal on the Teen and Twenty land.”
Cllrs Peter Bolt and David Cure (both Judd), Tom Edmondston-Low (Higham), Trudy Dean (Larkfield North) and two Indepedents, Mike Taylor and Tim Shaw (Borough Green and Long Mill), were also vocal in their opposition.
Cllr Nicolas Heslop said: “Having considered the analysis of the objections received and listened carefully to the views of the non-cabinet members who attended last night’s meeting, the Cabinet resolved to sell the land at River Lawn Road.
“We believe that this is the right decision for the borough and will enable the council to continue to deliver important services during what is a very challenging time for local government.”
It was noted that the sale would contribute to TMBC’s Savings and Transformation Strategy, which consider ways to ‘realise capital and/or increase income streams from the council’s existing asset base’.
In an emotionally charged evening at Kings Hill, more than 40 protesters filled the gallery, singing songs and brandishing banners as the councillors arrived.
Lucy Athey of Keep River Lawn Green said: “We are very grateful to Cllr Heslop for listening to her local voters and voting against the tide.
“She is completely correct that as the land is being sold without planning permission in place then there is no certainty as what might end up on there.”
She added: “It’s a shame they didn’t get the asking price for the Teen and Twenty, perhaps the extra profit on this could have made the sale of River Lawn less urgent.”
“It seems odd that councillors from the far-flung areas of Tonbridge & Malling can have a say on what goes on in our town. Many local Tonbridge councillors spoke up for us. It makes sense that major decisions about our much loved town should be made by local councillors who listen to their constituents.”
Mrs Athey, who is a teaching assistant at Sussex Road Primary School, said the decision had been greeted with dismay by her pupils. “The hardest thing for me was talking to some of our youngest campaigners the next morning, who rushed up to me saying ‘Mrs Athey, is it true? Are they going to cut our trees down?’
“Some of whom were in tears when they found out. They have been taught a very bitter lesson about democracy.”