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Article by Neill Barston | 1st January 2018

The Changing Face of Tunbridge Wells

Having been consistently named in studies as among the most desirable areas in the country to live, Tunbridge Wells is set to decide on several major new developments that could transform the town’s character.

With its leafy central shopping areas, array of cultural activities and prime commuter-belt location between London and the coast, Tunbridge Wells remains a hugely popular location to both live and work. So much so, that it was recently named as one of the top 10 places in the UK for happiness of its residents in terms of quality of life and sense of community.

It has clearly benefitted strongly from its vibrant arts facilities, range of restaurants and cafe culture that has seen its stock rise as a particularly well-heeled location.
While there are plenty of reasons for optimism in terms of its economic health, much like any other medium-sized town, it faces its fair share of challenges. Though it remains one of the most sought-after destinations in Kent regarding property, leisure amenities and access to private education, there are a number of key decisions that could potentially change its character significantly. There’s a sense of real transition in the air as the fate of several major sites hangs in the balance, that have seemingly divided public opinion.

For many, the recent confirmation that an £80 million transformation of the derelict former ABC cinema is potentially due to begin construction in 2018, stands as particularly welcome news. This is especially given that this prime retail spot has stood decaying since 2000 with a number of false dawns surrounding its redevelopment. The latest proposals feature a mix of retail and leisure – including a new three-screen cinema.

There has also been a general cautious welcome for surprise plans from national property group, British Land, to buy the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre for a reported figure of £100 million. This would see the creation of as yet unconfirmed new leisure and retail facilities and an eight-screen cinema, which has emerged over previous proposals for a major multi-million revamp and expansion of the present site.

While these two sets of developments alone are especially significant to the town, perhaps the most contentious of all present schemes is the potential development of a new theatre and council civic offices within the popular Calverley Grounds, with a planning application anticipated this spring.

And those against…

There is no doubt these would prove landmark new buildings for the town that could see the area compete with other rapidly-developing towns. The council has argued this would bring significant benefits to the area’s economy. Its ambitious plans, which include creating a new dedicated theatre facility, have raised alarm from concerned residents groups over their potential impact on the town.

Among those campaigning against the move are protest group the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, which has challenged the economic analysis of its potential benefits. Speaking to INDEX, spokesperson Dr Robert Chris said there were a number of grounds for concern over the project, including a costly compulsory purchase of car parking facilities within the footprint of the site.

Expressing concern on its financial benefits, Dr Chris challenged whether the stated £14 million boost would be anywhere near that figure from having a new arts centre. “Our rough calculations suggest that the boost of the new building is likely to be closer to £4 million. This largely undermines one of the key reasons the council offers to support this £90 million investment.”

Meanwhile, Nicholas Pope, of Friends of Calverley Grounds (FoCG), highlighted the fact a study commissioned by the borough council found that 55% of people in the area were not in favour of being charged an extra £10 on their council tax for a revamped theatre.

“We were consulted on the design of the buildings. The architect, Paddy Dillon, made changes to the buildings to reduce the impact whilst delivering the office space and theatre that the client, TWBC, wanted. There are issues with the design, such as the underground car park that FoCG was originally told would not change the landscape of the park, but now changes the slope on the north side of the valley,” explained Mr Pope, adding: “However, having said that FoCG was consulted at length on the design of the buildings, FoCG was not consulted on the most important decision, the site selection.

“The site selection process was a presentation to the Friends of Calverley Grounds. As the community group with an interest in the public park, we had no input into the decision process and did not get answers to our questions about the final selection of the sites for the theatre, office building and car park, adjacent to, partially on and under the historic park.”

The council’s position

Tunbridge Wells Borough councillor Tracy Moore, Cabinet member with Responsibility for Civic Development Communications, explained its crucial vote (which took place on 6th December) centred on whether to invest in a new development to include a new theatre, civic centre, office space to let, underground car park for 260 cars, as well as a public square at the entrance to Calverley Grounds.
The scheme has by no means been unanimously supported within the borough authority, with the latest full council meeting results showing 30 members were for the development and 13 were against. As a result, a formal planning application and final decision is expected this spring.

“In 2014 the council adopted a cultural strategy with an ambitious 10-year vision to grow our role as the cultural centre of the Kent and Sussex High Weald, so that by 2024 the Borough of Tunbridge Wells is nationally recognised for its vibrant cultural provision. I see the new theatre as an essential ingredient to realising this aspiration. There is a real opportunity for wonderful synergies between a new theatre, Trinity Theatre, The Forum and other cultural festivals and events. These cultural venues drive footfall, increased dwell time and increased customer spend and in turn support the leisure and retail economy,” explained Councillor Moore.

She said that there was a choice between investing or risk decline, noting that “choosing to do nothing was not the cheap option”, with a potential cost of millions of pounds maintaining and propping up a present theatre site that some regard as outdated facilities no longer fit for purpose.

Councillor Moore added: “It feels like Royal Tunbridge Wells could be turning a corner. We have planning consent for a viable scheme on the former cinema site and with further investment in the cultural offer we can ensure the town remains prosperous in the future. Change is never without controversy and I realise that not everyone is going to be supportive but there are few projects, if any, that would get unanimous support from all quarters. The financial plan to borrow £77 million has been independently audited and verified by experts as being sound and prudent. We have identified savings and efficiencies to service the debt from when we draw down the loan and some of these savings have already begun in anticipation of the project being given the go-ahead.”

She concluded that the issue was not simply about today’s taxpayers, but there was also a duty to plan for the future and invest for generations to come, in the same way councillors did in the 1930s with the existing civic complex.

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