‘We are not anti-theatre or anti-progress – but this plan would be a disaster…’

Pam Mills

THE Tunbridge Wells Alliance is not anti-theatre or anti-progress – but this plan would be a disaster for the borough and an expensive burden for generations to come. Cllr Tracy Moore is undertaking a major propaganda campaign to sell its benefits.

Most of these benefits would apply to any new office building and theatre, and could be greatly enhanced by a more intelligent plan than the one being promoted so expensively by the council. Some of the benefits she claims are grossly overstated, for example, the £14million boost to the local economy.

Using the formula properly would have produced a benefit about a third of this. And, of
course, the propaganda makes no reference to the many negative impacts of this scheme.

We offer eight reasons to reject the Civic Complex development.

1. Cuts to services falling unfairly across the borough

A project costing £90million, almost all of which will be borrowed, and which produces a projected annual deficit of about £2.5million, will burden the borough for decades. Swingeing cuts in services and new charges will fall unfairly on the poorest, and on those in rural parts of the borough.
The project is commercially high risk and likely to cause big financial problems for
the council in the future.

2. Half a million visitors to an already congested town centre

This plan envisages some half a million visitors a year to an already congested part of town, causing havoc for
shoppers and for commuters using the station, competition for parking, and extensive uncosted wear and tear on the town’s infrastructure.

3. Cheaper council offices

The council owns land suitable for much cheaper modern offices. This would save millions of pounds and avoid encroaching on a much loved and used park. Moreover, building a new car park under Calverley Grounds at a cost of almost £15million to
replace the larger one behind the Great Hall defies commercial logic. But then, this isn’t the councillors’ money… it’s ours!

4. Alternatives not properly assessed

There are at least three alternative plans worthy of consideration. One has been too hastily dismissed; the others haven’t even been considered. The politically-driven decision not to refurbish the existing Civic Complex is a disgrace. Yes, it would
be challenging and might require a temporary performance space elsewhere, but creative architects could design something viable, even exciting, at a fraction of the cost of the current proposal. Additionally, there are two alternative cash-generating rather than cash-consuming schemes for a theatre, and possibly a convention centre and hotel in Dunorlan Park. This would be controversial, but so is the current proposal.  Where’s the thinking outside the box?

5. ‘New’ theatre obsolete even before it’s built

The council wants a 21st-century theatre to host big West End touring shows. What they’ve designed is a classic 19th-century theatre in 20thcentury clothing that doesn’t have any of the flexibility needed for a major performance space in the coming decades as public tastes and the performing arts change, not least with the advance of technology. This project isn’t progress, it’s deeply rooted in the past. There are also doubts about
whether many top shows can use the theatre because of limited access for their large vehicles and the fly tower being too low.

6. Cultural objectives not served

This theatre will not deliver the council’s vision for Tunbridge Wells as a regional centre of culture because shows will come and go, leaving nothing in their wake, at best being a good night out. There is no evidence that those who currently see the original shows in London, just an hour away, will want to see the second team productions in Tunbridge
Wells. A 1,200 seat theatre is huge, very few theatres in London have more than 1,000 seats. To make the theatre commercially viable, ‘culture’ and its community role will be sacrificed for volume.

7. No democratic mandate

This development would reshape the town centre for generations to come, yet no resident has voted for it. The council claim that the so-called silent majority support the project, yet the evidence there is, from two informal referendums, a petition, and support for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, is that thousands of residents object. If the council is so confident of widespread support, why not hold a formal referendum, or wait until the May elections and put the project top of their candidates’ promises? That way we’d really know what residents across the borough think.

8. Lack of transparency

Even if they’ve technically complied with the law, and that’s an open question, the secretive manner in which this project has been devised and nurtured in the shady corridors of the Town Hall is planning by stealth. Huge amounts of information have been withheld from the public on the dubious grounds of commercial sensitivity. Moreover, the failure to advance plans for the existing Civic Complex in parallel with those for the new one  demonstrates an absence of joined-up thinking. This piecemeal approach to redevelopment can only result in a mess.

Over £4million has already been spent despite unsolved issues with HGV access through Hoopers’ car park; lengthy and expensive legal battles with Hoopers over access rights; funding issues; commercial viability; traffic congestion, noise and pollution – the list goes on.

The council claims that Stage 3 (not published at time of writing) will resolve these concerns, but these reports are only about this proposed scheme and will not address the fundamental issues mentioned here.

Given past performance, it seems likely that a great deal of information, and in particular anything negative, will be withheld on the spurious grounds of commercial sensitivity.

The council must publish the Stage 3 reports in full and treat the public with respect.

The future of the tired Town Hall and Assembly Hall should be an exciting project of communal creativity that capitalises on the extraordinary talent and experience within the borough.

Instead, the council has furtively unfolded a proposal that is remarkable only for its extraordinary expense and mediocrity.

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