Trust warns Southborough Hub is ‘not viable’ after downscaling

THE ART OF MAKING MONEY Howard Porter wants the town to engage more with arts and culture as a driver for prosperity

In a meeting last week, the authority voted to proceed with downscaled designs of the controversial Southborough Hub, which will combine a theatre, council offices and a medical centre.
This was despite the Theatres Trust, a national advisory public body for theatres, sending the town council [STC] a highly critical inspection report.

This stated concern in the following areas:
– The project is proceeding ‘without a decision on who and how the hub and theatre will be operated’.
– Plans for the auditorium have been downscaled to a capacity of 250, possibly capping the potential to cover costs of productions.
– Due to dual use as committee rooms and dressing rooms, simultaneous events cannot be held which restricts the revenue potential.
– The lack of space for a café. The report stated: ‘There is no provision other than a coffee machine within the library, a grave mistake and will affect the venue’s popularity’.
– No offices associated with the theatre.

A summary statement read: “It is vital the Southborough Hub is viable in the long-term. Based on the plans that we have seen to date, we do not have confidence that this can be achieved.”

Since initial plans were drawn up in 2015, the project has been ‘value engineered’ with its café taken out and space inside reduced.
The exterior of the building will also no longer have the original eye-catching rounded glass design.

Designs were set to be showcased in public for one hour last night [Tuesday], after the Times had gone to press.

The hub will replace the now demolished Victoria Hall Theatre and host council meetings.

STC is partnering Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and Kent County Council in delivering the hub – which will be partly funded from the sale of land to a housebuilder.

During a heated meeting at their temporary base inside a local school last week, STC ‘noted’ the Theatres Trust report but pressed ahead with their timetable.

This could see planning permission granted next February, work starting in April with completion 12 months later.

Cllr Nick Blackwell, of Southborough Town Council’s opposition Labour group, said the Theatres Trust report was ‘completely ignored’ by the authority’s leaders.

“They are looking at our particular situation and they offered up a tweak on our design, which was rejected by the Conservatives and I find that dispiriting.

“We have been here before [when the Hub’s initial designs were value engineered] and I said we should be learning from our mistakes. We have a chance to put things right.

“The Theatres Trust has said it will be a really expensive mistake.”

The councillor put forward an amendment to ‘pause and consider’ the concerns before proceeding – but this was voted down.

Instead, the Tory majority voted through a motion which stated ‘STC approves the designs and delegated authority to Cllr Kinghorn to make any final minor amendments’.

Cllr Kinghorn said he was working in ‘close collaboration’ with John-Jackson Almond, Director of The Assembly Hall Theatre, about the delivery of the Southborough Hub.

“It was approved that we would go ahead without consultation with the Theatres Trust,” said Cllr Kinghorn. “The hub has a multi-purpose objective. We are still going ahead.”

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