PLANS to close the Tunbridge Wells Jobcentre have been described as ‘one more nail in the coffin’ of public services in the town after the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said it was looking to relocate the office to Tonbridge.
A spokesman for the DWP said the centre was likely to shut in 2018, but ‘may go before that,’ as the government seeks to make savings of around £180 million a year by divesting of one in ten jobcentres around the UK.
Residents of Tunbridge Wells who rely on the Grosvenor Road centre to find employment and Job Seekers Allowance will have to travel to the Tonbridge on Bradford Street centre for future appointments.
Thursday’s (January 26) announcement by the DWP was seized upon by the local Labour Party who said the service was ‘being cut to the bone’ and will penalise ‘vulnerable’ people who rely on the Jobcentre.
Martin Betts, Labour’s local Campaign Co-ordinator said: “Closing the Tunbridge Wells office will mean many vulnerable claimants will have to spend more and travel further to get to their Jobcentre appointments.
“This will often mean relying on public transport which has also been cut, further undermining their chances of finding work. If they are minutes late for their appointments they can be ‘sanctioned’ and lose part of their benefit, driving them in desperation to rely on handouts from the local food bank.”
The borough of Tunbridge Wells has traditionally had one of the lowest rates of unemployment in Kent. Figures released last month for December showed 525 people were claiming either Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit in the borough. This was only slightly higher than in Sevenoaks, at 510.
DWP auditors say 20 per cent of job centre office space is being under-used, while eight out of ten claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and 99.6 per cent of applicants for Universal Credit now submit their claims online.
Andrew Metcalf, director of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, and director of Tunbridge Wells-based Maxim PR, believes the government is right to consider ways of saving money.
He said: “Given the size and value of the building the Job Centre occupies, and with only 525 claimants in Tunbridge Wells, it is easy to understand why the DWP would consider closing it.
“If it is closed we would welcome the opportunity to discuss with the DWP and borough council whether the building could become a home for small businesses, rather than simply be converted to residential apartments.”
However, he said the government ‘must ensure’ those who are unemployed can still access advice and support, stating it would be sensible to consider co-locating the service to the council-run Gateway offices on 8 Grosvenor Road.
His views were echoed by Greg Clark, who said: “If the Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells offices do merge I think it is important that there is a presence in both towns, such as by having advisors in the Gateway or in community centres on a regular basis. I will be asking the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to commit to this as part of the consultation.”
The DWP response
A DWP spokesperson said: “At the heart of everything we do is our customers, and we’ve made it easier than ever for people to access our suite of specialist services to find work and get the support that they need – whether that be in person, online or over phone.
“By bringing together a number of neighbouring Jobcentres we’re continuing to modernise our operations while ensuring that our premises provide best value to the taxpayer.”
A final decision on these plans is expected to be made within six months, with a view to completion by March 31 2018.
The DWP has said the closure of the Tunbridge Wells Jobcentre will go to ‘public consultation’ to help ‘inform the final decision and planning’.
This is because the proposals will mean merging with the Tonbridge Jobcentre will result in customers having to travel more than three miles or more than 20 minutes for services.
Documents released with the DWP announcement state: “It is proposed that Tunbridge Wells Jobcentre should close…and move to Tonbridge.
“As the jobcentre [in Tonbridge] is 4.5 miles, 25 minutes by train [from Tunbridge Wells] a consultation exercise will commence.”