TW Alliance state case against Civic Complex in Tunbridge Wells

TW Alliance state case against Civic Complex in Tunbridge Wells

Leading the campaign against the planned Civic Complex and theatre on the edge of Calverley Grounds is the newly formed TW Alliance. The Times put ten probing questions to their spokesman Dr Robert Chris…

How many people do you represent and what actual evidence do you have that the majority of local people are on your side?
The growing membership of TW Alliance, on-going donations from the public to fight this proposal, exit discussions with those attending the roadshows, social media comments, and petition signatories, plus two referendums by councillors are evidence that thousands are opposed to the scheme. There is no evidence of significant numbers in favour. The council refuses to call a referendum because it suits them better to make unsubstantiated
claims of support from the so-called ‘silent majority’. No one ever had the opportunity to express their view on this scheme at a local election. The council has rejected requests for this democratic deficit to be addressed. Perhaps the public’s voice could be heard by
having all councillors standing for re-election in May clearly statingwhether they support it or not.

Tell us about the single biggest downside of this going ahead?
This is a tragic lost opportunity. The strategic objectives to build a 21st century theatre capable of hosting the top touring West End productions were never the subject of any public consultation or in-depth independent analysis. The idea that a 1200 seat receiving theatre (without a resident production company) is sufficient to make TW a regional cultural hub flies in the face of much government research. In addition, far from a 21st century theatre, the auditorium is an unimaginative 19th century design looking to the past and not the future.

Do you see any positives whatsoever in what the council is planning?
Making TW a regional cultural hub is positive, but a ‘hub’ implies multiple interconnected arts and culture activities that combine into a culture and wealth creating local economy. This project demonstrates that the council have no idea how to make that happen.

What do you consider to be the most ‘misleading’ statement the council has made on the initiative?

By using the Shellard formula to claim a £14m economic boost to the borough, the Cabinet is either deliberately misleading other councillors and the public, or revealing that it doesn’t understand the economics of arts and culture. Applying Arts Council guidelines, we estimate the true figure to be closer to £4m. The council’s figure requires: n Ticket sales to increase 300% despite a 60% increase in average ticket price. n All the assumed £9.6m theatre revenues to be spent locally, and local residents’ ticket purchases not to reduce their expenditure on other local activities. All the £3.4m salaries and subsistence
allowances to be spent in the borough on goods and services produced in the borough. These assumptions are self-evidently unsupportable. Both Shellard himself and the Arts
Council recognise the formula does not apply to touring productions. Little of the economic activity they generate remains within the locality of the theatres through which they pass. Making the £14m central to their justification for this project, the council has opened itself to claims of gross dishonesty or ignorance, and possibly both.

Some say you are NIMBYS. How many of the Alliance organisers live within a quarter of a mile of the proposed site? And does that matter, anyway?
The long-term impact of this scheme affects every resident and local business. In truth, we’re all NIMBYs. The council invokes the NIMBY argument to discredit dissenters to avoid engaging with their concerns. None of our arguments addresses the narrow, and largely marginal, impact on the three Alliance organisers living close by, they all take a
borough-wide perspective. It’s time the council engaged properly with opposing views. We don’t need more propaganda, we need transparency, honesty and respect, and an end to secrecy on the spurious grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’. There are many talented and knowledgeable residents who really care about the borough. The council
should engage with them rather than treating all dissenters as an ignorant biased enemy.

Do you accept we need a new Civic Complex and if yes where would you site it?
We need new facilities but the theatre and town hall need not be on the same site. New council offices could more cheaply be located elsewhere on council-owned land. The public facing functions of the council will be well served by the new town centre Gateway development.

Do you accept we need a new theatre and that it would be too expensive to stay at the Assembly Hall?
The studies carried out in 2014 were limited and do not provide a secure basis for conclusions today that it is neither feasible nor economic to refurbish the existing civic complex. If TW is to be a regional cultural hub it needs support in the borough for the creative industries vital for the arts and culture economy to flourish. It is an open question whether it makes sense to frame the entire project around a culturally questionable diet of top West End touring shows requiring a 1200 seat theatre. The detailed work needs to be done to understand how best to develop the local arts and culture offering as a central part of the economic and cultural development of the borough. To be a cultural hub, we need to build a hub, not a stand-alone fixed format theatre with its early obsolescence already designed-in. The public needs to be engaged in a comprehensive assessment
of the options supported by advisers with an open brief, not one fettered by arbitrary
political constraints.

Do you think it is likely to get the green light on December 6 and if it does what’s your
next step?
If councillors continue to ignore our arguments and persist in meekly relying uncritically on assurances from those promoting this scheme within the council, sadly there is every likelihood it will be approved. But there are many hurdles the council has yet to jump. The  planning process and the May elections will become future battlegrounds.

What’s your vision for how the town should be developed over the coming years?
A non-partisan, long-term approach to improving the quality of life for residents’ using joined-up thinking across the policy spectrum, drawing on the many talents within the borough through open and transparent public engagement, and retaining and building upon the town’s heritage.

Give us five words that, in your view, describe the initiative?
Terrible value for money. Tragic wasted opportunity. A town planning horror story. A tale of arrogance and ignorance from a council elite increasingly isolated from its public.
(We know that’s more than five words.)

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