‘Bitter’ Benson anger at £150m council fund gap

David and Linda Squirrell

The most senior civil servant in Tunbridge Wells has issued his starkest warning yet over concerns the borough is facing a £150m gap in its infrastructure funding.

William Benson, the chief executive of the borough council, said he felt ‘quite bitter’ about current funding arrangements, which have left Tunbridge Wells facing the shortfall.

Speaking at a Town Forum meeting, he read from a council report highlighting the division between east and west Kent when it comes to securing money from the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

Failure by Tunbridge Wells to win funding from the LEP meant money was pouring into projects in the east of the county instead.

This has left the borough with an infrastructure shortfall which is ‘the largest percentage gap in the county’, said Mr Benson.

The borough is part of the southeast LEP, comprising Kent, Sussex and Essex, which allows it to secure spending for projects alongside other local authorities through a series of bids.

Roads and transport were singled out as the largest infrastructure concern after research suggested Tunbridge Wells was losing £32m in economic output per year owing to congestion.

Mr Benson said: “Tunbridge Wells is getting no money, but our needs are very high. I am quite bitter about this.

“Individuals in west Kent pay more than double the UK average in income tax, and businesses pay 88p in every pound in rates yet suffer some of the worst congestion in Kent.”

Mr Benson added that in terms of funding, west Kent accounts for 20 per cent of the population and 29 per cent of anticipated jobs growth in the county. Yet it receives seven per cent of allocated county spending and 14 per cent of government-backed spending for infrastructure.

As the Times reported in March, the report states west Kent failed to receive ‘a single penny’ of the most recent £20m allocated for growth, which went ‘exclusively’ to east Kent and Medway.

Tunbridge Wells secured £1.75m for improvements to the A26 during the first round of bids but nothing in the second.

Blaming ‘austerity cuts’, Alain Lewis, Labour borough councillor, said: “The LEP targets the areas they feel need the money. They look at other areas of Kent as having more deprivation.

“But the trouble is, all the pots of funding are shrinking, and as there is not enough money to go round, they have to focus it on those in need.”

MP Greg Clark – who oversaw the implementation of the funding scheme as planning and decentralisation minister – said: “The Local Growth Fund, now in the hands of local councils, will be running over several years and Tunbridge Wells has already done very well in getting £1.75 million to ease congestion along the A26.

“It comes on top of the dualling of the A21 and the improvements at North Farm – these schemes will transform the road network across our town.

“When further funding is available, I would certainly like to see hotspots like Pembury Road and Colt’s Hill benefiting.”

Mr Clark’s comments expose a rift developing with members of the Conservative-led council as council
leader David Jukes has also criticised the funding scheme.

In March, Cllr Jukes told the Times he had ‘steam coming out of my ears’ after the borough failed to secure funding to alleviate congestion on the Pembury Road.

Ukip county councillor Chris Hoare said he backed county council plans to set up a new LEP for Kent alone.

He said: “We would have a stronger voice and be able to make stronger pitches in a smaller LEP.”

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