‘It’s a choice of making an investment or risking the decline of the town’

Pam Mills

Last week this newspaper carried a story about the formation of TW Alliance a new group of professionals committed to forcing a rethink on plans to spend £72million on a new Civic Complex and theatre on land adjoining Calverley Grounds. As part of the Times’ commitment to providing readers with balanced views on topics where opinion is divided we invited Cllr Tracy Moore, who is leading the council’s case for the develop, to respond. The following article she has written is unedited

IMAGINE living in a town where you can see West End quality shows within walking distance of work, a town where the bars and restaurants are buzzing every night of the week with pre-theatre customers.

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council will decide at its full council meeting on 6th December whether to proceed with an ambitious plan to build a new 1200 seat theatre at the edge of Calverley Grounds, opposite the train station in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

The investment would also include a new civic centre and commercial office space, underground car parking for 260 cars and a wider, more welcoming public square and entrance into Calverley Grounds.

As a mum of three and resident of Tunbridge Wells for 13 years, I believe now is the time to invest in the future prosperity of the town, or risk standing still. The council began this journey in 2014 when the Assembly Hall Theatre required significant spend on its upkeep. A decision was taken then to refurbish the 78-year-old building to keep the doors open at a cost of £1.5m but, recognising the limitations of the existing buildings and the cost of maintaining them, work was commissioned to explore the possibility of building a
new theatre in the town centre to ensure that cultural and leisure facilities keep pace with the building of new homes.

An impressive, award winning project team has been working over the past three years to deliver a bold vision of new cultural, commercial and civic facilities.

Members of the team have won the Stirling Prize and worked on schemes including the
York Theatre Royal, the Shaftesbury Theatre, the Olympic Park master plan and the Chichester Festival Theatre. Our theatre architect is a board member of the Theatres Trust and has worked with a team who have delivered more than 1500 projects in 80 countries, including the Savoy Theatre, the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street, the Dolby Theatre in LA (where the Oscars are hosted each year) and the Young Vic in London.

The objectives of the project are threefold – to replace the Town Hall and Assembly Hall Theatre, which are no longer fit for purpose; to secure the future prosperity of the town by creating new cultural and civic facilities and to enrich the lives of residents and visitors for current and future generations. It is proposed that the borough council would borrow around £77 million from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB).

The PWLB was established in 1793 for local authorities to borrow to invest in capital projects and they will offer the council a low, fixed rate for 50 years. It is similar to a mortgage to buy your house – borrowing long term for a long-term asset.

around us have borrowed to invest in their cultural and leisure offer. Ashford borrowed £75 million for a hotel, cinema and leisure facility, Canterbury £74 million for half a shopping centre and Swale £28 million for a cinema, hotel and leisure facility. It is estimated that a new theatre could have a positive impact on our local economy of over
£14 million per annum. I see this as a choice – to invest or risk decline. Choosing to do
nothing is not the cheap option, we could still face costs of millions of pounds maintaining and propping up out-dated facilities no longer fit for purpose.

We have used an expert team to develop the design but we have also sought the advice of independent experts.

Historic England is supportive of the public use of the new buildings and is prepared to be persuaded that the new civic centre and theatre would enhance the western edge of Calverley Grounds.

Picture this – a wider entrance and grassy slope would create an improved link between Mount Pleasant and the park. New paths would lead you up to the left to a new, publicly accessible roof terrace above the civic centre instead of the public toilets.

Design South East, the region’s leading source of built environment design support, is independently assessing the design and the financing is being independently verified by CIPFA, the leading accountancy body for the public services.

If you look at the last 100-year history of Royal Tunbridge Wells, there has always been opposition to change. When the council bought Calverley Grounds from Calverley Hotel in 1921 for £10,000 there was a public inquiry. When the council built a pavilion in the  Calverley Grounds in 1926 to seat 1200 people under cover there was opposition to the spend.

There were strong protests in 1930 about the council’s plans to build a town hall, library, museum, art gallery and Assembly Hall.

These buildings have served us well for 80 years, but at the time Alderman Sir Robert Gower MP suggested that scheme “would be an act of criminal folly” suggesting that
the “Public Library and Museum were luxuries.”

In the 1980s the development of the Royal Victoria Place [RVP] shopping centre was opposed by some, with one group claiming that the RVP would put “Tunbridge Wells under more threat than it has ever known”.

That development, too, faced a public inquiry. Whether building the existing civic complex in the 1930s or building Royal Victoria Place in the 1980s, there has been opposition to change. If the council had not weighed those views against a long-term vision for the town, I believe we all would be worse off.

After the RVP was given the go-ahead Chartered Surveyor Weekly magazine featured a story with the conclusion that the RVP and other developments in Tunbridge Wells were “bold steps being taken – albeit kicking and screaming at times – into the 21st century.”

The new civic development is an asset replacement project and park enhancement project to take Royal Tunbridge Wells forward – hopefully not kicking and screaming, but rather with broad support from business, residents and visitors.

I really believe it is a choice to invest or risk decline. Find out more details by visiting www.twciviccentre.co.uk or go to the road show at Royal Victoria Place on Saturday, November 11.

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