PLANNING permission has been approved by councillors at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) for a later-living development on the former site of the ABC Cinema, which has been left derelict for the last 22 years.
The future of the town’s most infamous ‘grot spot’ is now set after TWBC’s Planning Committee granted permission to Retirement Villages Group (RVG) last Wednesday (November 16) to build 166 apartments on the site.
The Planning Committee, chaired by Cllr Trevor Poile (Lib Dem), voted ten votes in favour, with one against and two abstentions to approve the Mount Pleasant Road development.
Council officers had recommended the plan be approved.
Following the decision, Cllr Hugo Pound, Cabinet Member for Housing and Planning said: “The Planning Committee today approved the application to build a sustainable development of flats for the over-65s on the site of the old cinema in the middle of Tunbridge Wells.
“The site has been a ‘grot spot’ for over 20 years. Although this development is not to everyone’s taste, I believe that this mix of residential, retail and public amenity space will be considerably better than another period of no development.
“The Council will be monitoring both the build and completed development closely.”
There was significant objection to the plans from local residents and organisations, with many opposed to the building of a later-living complex in the town centre.
However, there was support for the plans from small businesses and other committee members.
Cllr Hugh Patterson (Lib Dem) told the committee: “It has been empty for 22 years and in all that time there has been nothing on that site and that has been a shame.
“If we refuse the application, we do not know how long it will remain empty for. It seems to me this applicant is much more invested in the site. It will be a value to the town.
“I think overall no plan or design is perfect, but I am convinced this is a good scheme.”
Permission was granted subject to the completion of a section 106 agreement of more than £233,000 – money agreed to be invested into the community by RVG.
This will see £72,576 go to the Amelia cultural hub, £30,489 towards the expansion of the town’s waste transfer station and Household Waste Recycling Centre, while £33,200 will mitigate the impact on the common.
Meanwhile, £46,670 will be allocated to the provision of an electric car club vehicle (including running and infrastructure costs) and the developers will also contribute £50,000 towards sustainable transport and £948 for a travel monitoring fee.
RVG, part of the group that runs AXA Health, the town’s largest employer, bought the site in December 2021 and submitted its plans back in the summer for the £72million retirement development that would feature 166 care units with commercial space and public facilities.
These mixed-use amenities are to include retail space, a café, indoor pool, gym, spa and a public outdoor courtyard with a water feature.
After consultation with the local community, RVG included changes to the building’s height, the number of windows and size of the balconies to its August submission.
RVG claims that the project will boost the local economy of Tunbridge Wells by £1.5million a year and create up to 44 full-time jobs, as well as 187 construction jobs during the development.
The site used to feature the 1930s-built ABC Cinema, before it was permanently closed in 2000 and demolished in 2014.
After multiple failed projects, the land had been dubbed as a ‘graveyard for developers’ by the Council’s Chief Executive.
RVG say they are committed to begin building on the site, but work will not begin until the ‘first half of 2024’.
Caroline Keiller of RVG, said: “We are delighted that Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has resolved to grant planning permission for our scheme.
“We cannot wait to bring our plans into fruition and re-activate this part of Royal Tunbridge Wells with a community built for people aged 65 and over. Beautifully-designed apartments and buildings will have shops, wellbeing facilities and a public courtyard on the doorstep,” she explained.
“This underpins our vision to create places that are connected to the wider community and sets a whole new standard for integrated retirement communities.”
TWO DECADES OF EMPTY PROMISES
The former ABC Cinema site in Tunbridge Wells has remained abandoned since 2000, when the picture house first closed.
Over the years it has had multiple owners – all of which have pulled out of completing any development on the empty plot of land.
1930 Construction of the ABC Cinema on Mount Pleasant Road.
2000 ABC Cinema closes after operating in Tunbridge Wells for 80 years.
2004 Site is acquired by GLN Copenhagen but despite making a planning enquiry, the firm does not submit any formal plans.
2008 Rydall Properties acquire the land and get approval for a mixed-use development.
2011 Bellhouse Joseph/Carlye acquire the site and submit plans for a new scheme.
2014 Hope is on the horizon as Bellhouse Joseph demolish the old cinema.
2015 Two years on, the site is back on to the market.
2016 Altitude Real Estate buy the site.
2018 Altitude get new consent for a mixed-use development.
2019 New owners Prime Finance secure a deal with Elysian Residences who base their proposed development on Altitude’s planning permission.
2020 Elysian Residencies begin ‘assessing’ their plans in the wake of the pandemic. The site is then put back on the market by Prime Finance for £17million.
2021 Site is acquired by RVG (part of the AXA Group) for an undisclosed sum, on condition of planning approval.
2022 Planning permission for 166 extra care units, including communal facilities and commercial/retail units, is granted
2024 Building on the site is finally expected to start