New theatre hangs in balance as clock ticks down on project

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The Cabinet were left frustrated at Wednesday night’s Full Council as several absentees meant they may have had enough support to push Calverley Square through.

But a motion to defer the debate on the £108million theatre project was overwhelmingly carried, with councillors arguing there was not enough time to give it justice.

A new meeting has been scheduled for next Tuesday [October 8], but the Council’s best chance to get the development past councillors may have already gone.

Any further delays would most certainly finish the project as contractors, Mace, are likely to walk away if the contract is not signed by the end of October, and even if they are convinced to stay on board, the Council say costs will rise around £200,000 a month.

The agenda-packed meeting last week got off to a disruptive start with the Mayor having to threaten a handful of hecklers with removal following shouts and jeers from the public gallery.

A discussion on a petition handed to the Council by traders concerned by the Public Realm works in Monson Road, meant only an hour of the monthly assembly of councillors remained to discuss the theatre.

Chief Executive to the Council, William Benson, told councillors they could extend the four-hour limit of the meeting, but independent councillor for Paddock Wood [East], Rodney Atkins, forwarded a motion to postpone.

Cllr Atkins, who before being elected as an independent councillor unsuccessfully ran for Council for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance in 2018, said another meeting was necessary ‘so that time can be given to the decision that this Calverley Square project needs’.

He said: “It is unfortunate we have got to 9.15 and not got to the main item. And in order to give this item the justice it deserves, I think we should adjourn these agenda items to an extraordinary meeting.”

His motion was seconded by Labour’s Hugo Pound [Sherwood] and carried, despite protestations from the Cabinet.

After the meeting, a Cabinet member described the move as ‘likely to be tactical’, which was denied by opposition councillors who blamed the Council for packing the agenda ‘too heavily’.

Regardless of the reasons behind the motion to delay the debate, it was a missed opportunity for the Cabinet. Absent from the meeting were Cllrs Lucy Willis and Becki Bruneau, both from the Alliance party, which was set up specifically to oppose Calverley square.

Also unable to attend was Conservative Cranbrook councillor, Sean Holden, who has told colleagues in the past he ‘never had and never would’ vote for the new theatre.

Early signs suggested the vote last week might have squeaked through, as the Cabinet defeated an opposition motion to change the order of the agenda for Calverley Square by a single vote.

At least six councillors from the controlling Tory group are unlikely to back Leader Alan McDermott and Cllr Scott when Calverley Square comes back to Full Council next week.

Most opposition members are expected to vote against the development.

The Conservatives have 28 councillors on the 48-seat council, but following the death of Cllr Basu, the Cabinet member for Sustainability, their eight-seat majority has been reduced to seven, including the Mayor.

Cllr David Scott remained determined. He told the Times: “I will fight for this until the last minute. I am determined this is the right thing to do.”

He added: “Regardless of the outcome, I will fight to see something in this town. I will not sit by and let this town die.”

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