Tunbridge Wells is set for a building boom with half a billion pounds of construction work pouring into the town over the next five years.
That was the message from council leader David Jukes who said Tunbridge Wells was ‘open for business’, at a meeting of the borough council’s cabinet last Thursday.
Projects in the pipeline include the development of up to 250 houses at Hawkenbury Farm, spending on the A21, the £70m expansion of Royal Victoria Place and a £25 million new theatre in Tunbridge Wells.
Cllr Jukes said the council had been approached by numerous contractors looking to invest, adding: “Everywhere I go, I hear people say Tunbridge Wells is a really up and coming town.
“Tunbridge Wells is open for business. The number of developers which have come to see myself and various other members is quite amazing.
“In the next four to five years, we have somewhere in the region of half a billion pounds’ worth of construction coming into Tunbridge Wells.”
Cllr Jukes admitted there may be some reaction from people worried about how such a large investment could change the town. But he insisted there is no real alternative if Tunbridge Wells is to avoid stagnation.
He said: “Some people may say ‘we don’t want that, it will transform the town’. It will, but I think for the better. It is up to us here to ensure it is transformed in a nice manner.”
Cllr Jukes spoke shortly after cabinet had approved funding to allow officers to further investigate the feasibility of developing new council-owned offices in Mount Pleasant Avenue.
It comes after a consultants’ report suggested the cost of upgrading the 70-year-old town hall to meet environmental requirements by 2018 would cost over £10.5 million.
In addition, the cost of keeping the doors open is set to hit £2 million over the next few years.
Architects have identified up to 50,000 sq ft of office accommodation that could feasibly be developed in Mount Pleasant Avenue, which would involve building on a council-owned car park currently leased by Axa.
One of the options would be to use it as a commercial venture to mitigate cuts in government grants, which are predicted to drop again by 2018.
The cabinet was told that by letting a ‘minimum’ of 20,000 sq ft of the office space, the council could make about £400,000 per year, and that two ‘significant’ possible tenants had already expressed interest.
A second option would be relocation of council functions to the new premises which would be more cost-effective and ‘user-friendly’. There are also plans to allow the new building to be open at weekends, to be used for conferences and functions including weddings, adding another source of income.
Cllr Paul Barrington-King, portfolio holder for finance, said: “Any designs we look at should reflect the unique architectural heritage of Royal Tunbridge Wells. This is important particularly with the sensitivity and location of the proposed site being adjacent to Calverley Grounds.”
Cllr Jane March, portfolio holder for tourism, leisure and economic development, said she has received support for the plans from groups such as the town forum and civic society.
She said: “They are very much in favour and seemed very glad we are doing something for Tunbridge Wells.”