Southborough gives the go ahead on controversial hub

Gatwick Campaigners

After months of deliberation and controversy Southborough Town Council has voted to press ahead with plans for a multi-million pound community hub.

Despite protests over the project – which involves selling the public playing fields directly behind the site and demolishing the historic Royal Victoria Hall theatre – council members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the plan.

Council Chairman Glenn Lester called for a renewed sense of purpose among colleagues from opposing parties as concerns were once again raised over plans to raze the Royal Victoria Hall to the ground.

Cllr Lester, who acknowledged that the hall had played a significant role in the community, felt it was the right time to progress a new scheme.

He said: “We have all had different points of view on this over the years, but it is clear that residents have favoured a new building for this site. I think the consultation that was carried out was robust and I have every confidence in its findings.”

The hub project, which includes new civic and medical centres, a library, and theatre, is a joint venture between Kent County Council, Southborough Town Council and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

The funding for it, thought to be around £30 million, will come from the much disputed sale of public playing fields at the rear of the hall.

Concerned by plans to dispose of public green space, UKIP Tunbridge Wells County Councillor Chris Hoare staged a protest outside Thursday evening’s meeting in Southborough, believing the land in question should remain in public ownership.

He said: “We are against building on public playing fields that are used by football teams and we don’t believe they should be sold off to developers. These fields are a much better community asset as they are now.”

However, the majority of members agreed with a public consultation held over the past eight weeks, in which a total of 63 per cent of respondents wanted a completely new building for the Southborough site. There was a second option which involved part-retaining the 100 year-old hall – which is believed to be the first municipal theatre in the country – but 15 out of 18 councillors voted against this. The remaining three abstained.

Southborough residents had previously mounted a 5,000-strong petition to save the theatre, which the town council claimed was no longer financially viable, with its long-term maintenance running into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Speaking at the meeting, Kent County Council capital project officer Jonathan White said: “The biggest thing to have come from the consultation was that everyone wanted something moved forward.

“There are a number of issues that remain including those around traffic and parking, which we would update in terms of the design of the sites, as well as needing to procure the land from Lloyds and Tesco.”

Cllr Nicholas Blackwell said he was ‘extremely pleased’ that the hub was being taken forward, but added that an emotional family attachment to the now-closed theatre meant he would be unable to vote for the hall’s demolition.

Similarly, Councillor Jason Reeves, who had campaigned to retain the theatre, said he was voting in favour of the plans for redevelopment ‘with a heavy heart’ given that the building had been built thanks to a community donation of £3,000 by 19th-century Tunbridge Wells dignitary and former Lord Mayor of London David Salomons.

The plans were due to be put before a meeting of the Southborough Hub Project Board yesterday. They were expected to be approved.

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