Labour presses for competition as way to solve theatre impasse

The four Labour councillors sitting on the borough council have suggested a rerun of the original architectural competition that led to the building of the art deco Town Hall, police station and Assembly Hall Theatre in 1939.

The competition was run in 1934, when architects Percy Thomas and Ernest Prestwich’s winning design was chosen for the Civic Way complex.

This time, Labour say the competition should ask architects to ‘repurpose, redevelop and refurbish’ the existing buildings to improve the Assembly Hall Theatre and upgrade the Town Hall to make it suitable for the future.

Sherwood councillor Hugo Pound – the group’s spokesperson on the Calverley Square development – said they have brought up the idea at the cross-party meetings being chaired by Town Forum Chairman Adrian Berendt.

The proposed Calverley Square, which the Times revealed last week has gone over-budget from £90million to £108million, is currently on hold while alternatives are discussed.

Councillors will decide whether to go ahead or shelve the development at the next Full Council meeting on September 25.

Cllr Pound said their alternative scheme could have cross-party support from councillors opposed to building on the edge of Calverley Grounds.

He told the Times: “The Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA] already have a process in place to undertake such projects.

“We think it will cost around £100,000 to run the competition, which will challenge architects to repurpose, redevelop and refurbish the current Town Hall, Assembly Hall Theatre and any other building we may have by then – such as the police station.”

The process would see architects compete for the tender to revamp the Civic Way site, and could lead to four or five ‘modern and exciting’ designs.

He said it was ‘clear’ there was a need for office space in Tunbridge Wells, and the existing theatre did need improvements, but building on the edge of Calverley Grounds ‘was not the way to go’.

“The Assembly Hall Theatre probably won’t become a 1,200 seat theatre like Calverley Square, but it may have other facilities that Calverley Square doesn’t, such as a dance studio,” said Cllr Pound.

Labour believed repurposing the existing buildings will cost around ‘£40million’ – but Cllr Pound admitted it would not have the same asset value as Calverley Square when completed.

The scheme would also leave the town without the Assembly Hall for a couple of years while renovation work was being undertaken, and there would have to be a temporary home found for the council if the Town Hall is to be revamped.

“But we will be left with a heritage building that we own and is situated right in the centre of the town linked to the Amelia Scott cultural hub with good links to public transport,” insisted Cllr Pound.

But he did not rule out any building on Calverley Grounds: “The Great Hall car park remains a council asset on Calverley Grounds, but a new use for it may not encroach as much on the park as Calverley Square does.”

Conservative councillor David Scott, the Cabinet member in charge of Calverley Square, said the idea would be considered along with any other alternatives presented.

But he added: “Before any change in direction towards a proposal that would close our Assembly Hall Theatre for several years and disrupt our community performance groups, we need to be absolutely sure of the relative costs and benefits.

“Councillors will have the opportunity at the end of September to make a decision, based on sound information, between staying the course or changing direction.”

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