That’s the plan put forward by a cross-party Council committee, which means it is almost certain to get the green light. It would end years of political infighting over what to do with the ageing building.
Between 150-200 Council staff normally based at the Town Hall will continue the mixture of home and office working adopted during the pandemic, freeing up around two thirds of the space.
The move comes after AXA, which has offices opposite the Town Hall, announced last month that it has adopted a similar flexible approach to its workforce, allowing it to sell off two of its buildings.
Councillors at Tuesday’s [July 13] Finance and Governance Cabinet Advisory Board were told that the Town Hall scheme has been devised by the Cross Party Group of councillors set up after the failed Calverley Square project.
The group, which features councillors from Labour, the Lib Dems, Alliance and the Conservatives, was created to find alternatives to the £108million civic centre complex that was scrapped at a cost of nearly £11million.
Even before the pandemic, the Council had said the Town Hall was too large for its needs. The 1940s building is also in dire need of renovation, and currently undergoing more than £1million of maintenance, including repairs to its roof and windows.
According to a report presented to councillors, the Cross Party Group wants to release two thirds of the Town Hall ‘to a third-party to enable co-working to be established in the Town Hall alongside the Council’s operations’.
The plan will see part of the Town Hall converted into commercial office space, where people from different occupations and employers work alongside each other.
Council officers will continue to operate out of the Town Hall, along with other tenants in the building, including Greg Clark, MP, the court services and the Community Safety Unit.
The initiative has been made possible by the Covid pandemic after it showed that Town Hall staff could take a flexible approach to working, allowing the Council to reduce the space it needs in the Town Hall to around a third – about 11,000 sq ft – freeing up approximately 20,000 sq ft for office space.
Cllr David Scott, who sits on the working group and is the Cabinet’s member for Economic Development, said: “It is very exciting. We will work in collaboration with a third party. The Council won’t run it as we don’t have the experience. We will work with those who have expertise and they will run it for us.
“The demand for flexible office space would have happened anyway but over a number of years. Now it is happening much faster due to Covid.
“The Council have been working on this idea, which is the same thing AXA are doing. Not losing staff but losing office space by more flexible working.”
He said people and businesses will be able to rent individual desks as well as small offices at the Town Hall, generating an income for the Council.
It’s a similar business model to several co-working spaces that have emerged in Tunbridge Wells in recent years, including M-Space, Office Tribe and Desk Renter, where people go to work two or three days a week instead of commuting to London.
Cllr Scott said: “People who have come from London want a better place to work along with social links and other people around them.
“It is much better than commuting every day. It is what the town needs. People coming here for two to three days to work.”
He said the office space would generate an income for the Council, but the plan was to get a third-party to pay for the conversion.
“We want to avoid capital expenditure where we can, so this won’t be Council money, but it won’t be as expensive as we first thought, most likely less than £10million,” he added.
The plan, which is set to be recommended to Cabinet later this month, will eventually need to be approved by Full Council.
New Leader backs Town Hall plan
The new Leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has said the plan to convert the civic centre in Tunbridge Wells into commercial offices could help pay its costly annual maintenance bill.
The Town Hall, along with the Assembly Hall Theatre, currently require around £1million a year in upkeep costs.
But Tom Dawlings, who was elected Leader of the hung Council last month, said the Cross Party Group’s plan, could help fund the building in future, reducing the authority’s overheads.
“It is an expensive building to maintain, and we have an obligation to keep it maintained, but this will go some way towards the costs.”
He added: “It will enable the Council to keep the Town Hall, which is what people have told us they want us to do. The Council will remain in the Town Hall and the Town Hall will still be owned by the people of Tunbridge Wells.”