U-turn over the announcement on fate of controversial theatre project

CONFUSION reigned this week over the timing of the announcement of the outcome to the public inquiry into the controversial £90million Calverley Square development.

The results of the inquiry into the Borough Council’s use of Compulsory Purchase Orders [CPOs], which are needed to develop the Calverley Grounds site, was initially planned for release on 3 May.

The day before, on May 2, is when people in the borough head to the polls for the council elections, with the Calverley Square development likely to be a major feature of the political campaigns.

Asked if the Planning Inspectorate, who held the public hearing in the Council’s use of CPOs, were aware of the borough elections and if that would affect the release of the inquiry results, a spokesman emailed the Times on Monday to say it would not.

He said: “The original expected date for the decision was in fact 3 May but it is being issued on 2 May. It is not therefore being held back due to local elections.”

However, yesterday afternoon, the office of the Planning Inspectorate made a U-turn and sent the Times a second email stating that the decision would be delayed if there was ‘reason to believe that the outcome may be electorally sensitive.’

The email concluded: “It is clear that this case falls within [that area] therefore we will not issue the decision until the results of the election have been announced.”

Even so, the fate of the civic complex and theatre on the edge of Calverley Grounds could still play a crucial role in how people might vote.

Tunbridge Wells Alliance Party was established to fight the development and already has succeeded in winning a seat on the borough council at an earlier election. The Lib Dems and Labour are also opposed to the scheme.

The majority Conservative Party on the council is strongly in favour of Calverley Square which it says will bring significant benefits to the town.

Both the Council Leader, David Jukes, who has spearheaded the Calverley Square project, as well as Cllr Tracy Moore, whose portfolio of Economic Development and Communication was created to promote the development, have their seats up for re-election on May 2.

Chief Executive William Benson, who is also Returning Officer for the Council, said the Planning Inspectorate is free of any ‘purdah’ restrictions which can limit activities and comment.

Mr Benson added: “Purdah relates to publicity restrictions that should be observed by councils in the pre-election period.

“The CPO public inquiry is being overseen by the Planning Inspectorate, not the Council. In any event, guidance on purdah makes clear that councils should continue to discharge normal council business during this period.”

Mr Benson denied speaking to the Planning Inspectorate with regards to the date of the result of the CPO hearing.

“None of the council officials, myself included, has spoken to the Planning Inspectorate about this,” he confirmed.

Cllr Nick Pope from the Tunbridge Wells Alliance says he is not surprised the Planning Inspectorate have resorted to their original date.

“If I were them, I’d announce it on the 3 May. I do know that a number of objectors have been in contact with the Planning Inspectorate, hoping to bring the date forward to be before the election. However, I am not sure how much use that would be.”

The Planning Inspectorate has since apologised for ‘poor communication’. A spokesman said on Wednesday: “We apologise for any confusion caused.”

He said the issue was caused by believing the results of the local election would be announced on 2 May and not the 3rd.

The inquiry, which concluded last month, is looking into whether the council is justified in using CPOs to take land, property and claim access rights for its new theatre and civic complex.

During the three-week hearing, Mr Graham Dudley from the Planning Inspectorate, heard from a range of objectors to the proposed development, including Hoopers department store, which is fighting the council over access rights to its car park.

The council admit they have no ‘Plan B’ if Mr Dudley does not approve their use of CPOs, which could effectively bring an end to the development.

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