Hub project could collapse after the NHS threatens to withdraw funding

The threat follows attempts by the town council, now controlled by Labour, to renegotiate a key contract.

Any delay in the project would hit Tunbridge Wells Youth Football Club, which could lose a £500,000 grant after seeing its pitches sold off for the development. 

The club warns that it would not survive such a loss.

The mixed-used hub, which combines a community centre, theatre, library and medical centre, was proposed in 2015 by the Conservative-led council. 

It is, in part, meant to be a replacement for the Royal Victoria Hall, which was demolished in 2017. The Hub though, has been beset with delays, and has been dramatically scaled back from the £30million facility original proposed.

The health service had agreed to pay £4.2million in grant funding to cover both the cost of the medical centre as well as contributions to other aspects of the development.

This key NHS England contract was due to be signed on August 19.

Now though, according to a letter seen by the Times, the whole project hangs in the balance after health officials have threatened to withdraw their grant funding by the end of this week.

NHS bosses say Southborough Town Council [STC], which swung to Labour control during the last local election, is trying to renegotiate the deal by asking for ground rent on top of the £4.2million grant funding already agreed. NHS England says this will ‘undermine the business case’ for the health service.

In the letter, NHS England said asking for ground rent was ‘flawed and inappropriate’ and not ‘evidence of value for money for the public purse’ and that their previous offer was ‘full and final’.

They have warned the council to accept the deal this coming Friday [August 2] otherwise the NHS will withdraw it completely. 

If this happens, it is likely the project, which is receiving funding from a number of other sources, including Kent County Council [KCC] and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council [TWBC], will face significant delays and funding shortfalls and may not go ahead at all.

Conservative councillor, Ian Kinghorn, who until the last local election had been the lead on the Southborough Hub project, said the controlling Labour group, which has nine members on the council while the Conservatives have six and the Liberal Democrats have three, now ‘risk losing everything’.

He said: “The only contract that wasn’t signed before the local election was this NHS contract. The Labour Party have decided in their wisdom to try to renegotiate it, but we do not know why – it was a very good offer.”

He continued: “The NHS are tired of the Labour group and they have said their offer is a full and final and if the council do not agree to it, they will withdraw it.

“The council risk losing everything. This money isn’t just for the medical centre but it is paying for other aspects of the hub.”

The news has alarmed Tunbridge Wells Youth Football Club, which saw its clubhouse and pitches sold off for development 18 months ago, and they now risk losing a £500,000 grant awarded to the club to provide new facilities at the Southborough Hub.

In an open letter to STC Cllrs, they warned this week: “Any delay in the project would almost certainly result in us losing the £500,000 grant which would be an unforgivable position you would have put us in.”

They said they were ‘distraught and frustrated’ and fear that any delay would mean the club ‘would be unlikely to survive’.

STC have said the reason for the renegotiation with the NHS lies with health officials who they accuse of ‘moving the goalposts’ with a ‘substantially different’ revised offer.

Cllr Nick Blackwell [Labour] Community Hub Project Board Member and Working Group Member at STC, told the Times: “The £4.2million was agreed with the NHS in March.

“After the new council was elected in the May, the NHS came back and said they had concerns about the funding. 

On July 10, they raised a substantially different offer to what was originally proposed.

“Essentially they have moved the goalposts,” he said.

He continued: “At the moment, our lawyers are asking for details of the proposals from the NHS. Southborough Town Council will then take a position, and if we feel it is in the best interest of the town we can support it, but we cannot make any firm commitments until then.”

Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark has said he was ‘very concerned’ that the project was in such jeopardy at this late stage.

He said: “Residents, patients, members of the football club and the whole community need this matter to be resolved urgently.”

He added that he was hoping to bring all stakeholders together in an attempt to find a solution to the impasse.

Also hoping to break the stalemate is Cllr Mike Hill, KCC Cabinet Member for Community and Regulatory Services, and Cllr Carol Mackonochie, TWBC’s head of Communities and Wellbeing.

The borough and county councillor last week wrote a joint letter to STC to warn the town council what will happen if they do not accept the NHS offer. 

They said: “This will be enormously damaging for Southborough residents and therefore we strongly recommend that you should accept the generous offer from the NHS and allow the project to proceed.”

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