Opposition to Civic Centre will fight any plans to build on Calverley Grounds

The new Leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Cllr Alan McDermott, says he will reach out to other parties to try to break the impasse over the controversial £90million Calverley Square project.

He says he is starting with a ‘clean sheet’ but the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, who oppose the project, has said there can be no deals.

Cllr McDermott took over the reins as Leader from David Jukes last week, after the latter was ousted in the local elections by Lucy Willis from the Tunbridge Wells Alliance.

He admits Calverley Square, which was given an economic clean bill of health by the Planning Inspectorate earlier this month, has become ‘toxic’, which he blames on poor communication by the previous cabinet.

“Communications with the public were probably not as good as they could have been,” he admitted.

“It has become toxic. It is something that I have to consider. It does not mean the idea is bad, though.

He continued: “Calverley Square was David Jukes and Tracy Moore’s project, and also the previous finance director – who for some reason has now resigned over it,” he added.

He was taking a swipe at his former cabinet colleague, David Reilly, who resigned after Cllr McDermott was appointed as the Conservative Group Leader.

Mr Jukes, as well as several Conservative councillors, have all mooted the possibility of a scaled-back Calverley Square.

So far it is estimated to have cost taxpayers more than £10million before a spade has even gone into the ground.

Cllr McDermott admitted he did not have a majority in the Council Chamber to press on with the development as it is, but said: “If it is shelved, if the people that are against it completely are saying ‘forget it’, then they are saying we should throw away £X million already spent.

“I am looking for a compromise solution that everyone will agree to, which is why I will be speaking with other parties over the next two weeks,” he said.

However, Tunbridge Wells Alliance, who now hold six seats in the Council Chamber, told the Times there can be no compromise.

A spokesman for the party said: “It is Tunbridge Wells Alliance’s view that the whole Calverley Square project is seriously flawed, and therefore cannot be supported in any form. 

“We have been told repeatedly that the three elements of the project only work financially and practically when they are combined, and cannot work as separate elements. 

“Furthermore, even the proposed office block by itself will do serious damage to what is probably the most attractive landscaped and planted part of the park, and would therefore be unacceptable to us.”

The other opposition parties are being more conciliatory with both Labour and the Lib Dems open to discussions.

The Liberal Democrats, whose Leader, Ben Chapelard, earlier this month called for an ‘extraordinary council meeting’ to discuss Calverley Square on June 17, said they were ‘open to discussions with the new Leader’ but criticised him for ‘mixed messages’.

Cllr Chapelard said: “On one hand he says he wants to continue with the new Town Hall complex, whilst on the other he wants to work with other parties to stop the project.

“I will meet with Alan McDermott and listen to what he has to say with an open mind.”

While Labour said that they campaigned to have the project stopped on cost grounds, Hugo Pound, Labour councillor for Sherwood, said they were up for discussions.

“We are pleased that the new Council Leader will be reaching out to other parties, and hope that a more collaborative approach will help us to break the project impasse and enable us to move forward on what is best for our borough,” said Cllr Pound.

He added: “Labour has initiated a meeting of opposition parties on June 12 to see if it is possible to agree some common ground on the future of the project.”

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