The Tonbridge community caf© that never opened is up for sale

Pam Mills

UNCERTAINTY surrounds the future of the community café at Tonbridge’s River Centre after it was put on the market.

The two-storey Gateway Café has proved to be a white elephant in the town because it has never been used in the six years since it was built.

The two-storey ‘landmark’ building on Medway Wharf Road is being sold by estate agents Bracketts with a guide price of £650,000 to £675,000.

The move has caused anger among residents who believe that a café could provide a venue for young people who have few other options, especially since the Teen and Twenty Club closed.

The adjacent Town Lock has become a focal point for anti-social behaviour.

There is a clause in the planning permissions attached to the site which stipulates the facility must have a community use – casting a shadow over any potential sale to private developers.

But Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council suggested to the Times this could be changed: ‘The building has planning permission to be used as an internet café.

‘The council would encourage anyone considering bringing forward an alternative use of the building to make early contact to discuss such plans as they may require planning permission.’

The café had formed part of the church that was built at River Centre by the Harvester Trust, a Christian charity.

The land for the café was ‘sold’ to them by developers Redrow for a nominal fee of 99p in 2009 on the understanding that they built it themselves.

When the trust ran into financial difficulties it sold off the church, car park and café to Servants Fellowship International [SFI], another charitable religious organisation based in Wiltshire.

SFI in turn sold River Centre to Hillsong, a Pentecostal church, and its car park to property developers in 2016.

The original proposal by KingsOak developers was for the construction of 225 apartments, offices and an internet café was approved in 2004.

It included Condition 27, which stated: ‘No development shall take place on the land identified for the internet café other than the internet café, or separate community social facility.’ Planning was finally approved in 2011.

In August 2016, SFI sold River Centre to Hillsong, a large Pentecostal church based in Australia, for more than £3million.

Cllr Russell Lancaster, who represents the ward of Medway, told the Times: ‘My understanding is that there is nothing stopping the new owners from applying for a change of use, so regrettably the café may never see the light of day.’

He added: ‘I think this is very disappointing, especially given the history and ownership of the land in question.

‘In my opinion, SFI have had little interest in the site or town, which has been a great shame, as the site now stands on a wonderful new Town Lock, which the council has delivered.’

£1.95million was spent on the Town Lock, which was unveiled as a new centrepiece in April 2016.

Diane Huntingford, Chair of the Tonbridge Civic Society, said of the café: ‘The building is certainly fit for this purpose and it would be an ideal world if this use could be retained.

‘However, in today’s economic climate we have to be realistic and unless some philanthropic organisation steps forward to finance this we cannot expect the local authorities, knowing the cuts they are currently having to make, to take this project forward.

She added: ‘A fine example has been set by Tonbridge Old Fire Station. Perhaps this can be replicated on this side of the river.’

Reach for the sky

The car park attached to the River Centre is the subject of a controversial planning application to build a 16-storey residential tower.

Michael Whiteley, who transformed the former Lloyds Bank on Medway Wharf Road into a 64-apartment block, has bought it.

And a company of which he is a director, F Estates, wants to build 252 appartments for rental, with an additional nine-floor tower.

Permission to develop 73 flats on the site was granted in 2011 but nothing was built.

The original application by the Harvester Trust was for a 14-storey ‘Hope Tower’, which would have resembled a church spire or steeple with a prayer room at the top.

FRAGILE FUTURE: Cllr Russell Lancaster outside the glass-fronted Gateway Café

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