Tonbridge council defends investment plans after public asset sold for housing

SITUATION VACANT: The CAB moved from 1-4 River Walk to a new council-owned office in the Castle in 2016

Tonbridge council defends investment plans after public asset sold for housing

by Andy Tong | 24th April 2019

A DEVELOPER has exchanged contracts on the former Citizens Advice Bureau building in Tonbridge and is intending to convert it into residential housing.

The premises at 1-4 River Walk is owned by Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council [TMBC]. The sale will be completed when the planning application is approved.

It is the latest example of the council selling off publicly owned assets to private developers, following the sale of the Teen and Twenty Club to Assura, who are building a new medical centre on the site on River Lawn Road.

The council’s Cabinet also voted to sell River Lawn to developers in October 2017.

Mark Hood, chair of the Keep River Lawn Green campaign group, attempted to have the old CAB building designated as an asset of community value but his application was turned down in 2017.

Mark Raymond, TMBC’s chief corporate policy officer, cited Section 88(2) of the Localism Act 2011 ‘which states that, as land that has furthered the social well-being or social interests of the local community in the recent past, the test is whether it is realistic to consider it will do so again during the next five years’.

He said: “I conclude the above test has not been met given the decision to dispose of the property on the open market.”

‘We believe no publicly owned building is safe in the hands of this council’

Four months after the council decided to sell it in February 2017, a petition signed by 3,218 residents demanded that River Lawn and the CAB building should not be sold until ‘a proper consultation has been held’.

Mr Hood, who is standing as a candidate for the Greens in Judd ward, said: “The Green Party fear this is just the start. Every single council-owned building including the Angel Centre has been assessed by [independent property consultants] Hartnell Taylor Cook.

“The council already plan to sell River Lawn and to build 55 houses on the car park at Tonbridge Angels Football Club in the Local Plan.”

He added: “We believe that no publicly owned building is safe in the hands of this council. They started by selling our toilets, now they are lining up substantial buildings.

“They have already sold the Teen and Twenty site for half-price. Their business plan necessitates selling property assets to raise money to transfer to institutional property investments.”

Martin Coffin, TMBC’s Cabinet Member for Finance, Innovation and Property, has defended the council’s strategy, which he says has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to guarantee the delivery of services amid falling funding from central government.

He told the Times: “For the past decade we, like all other local authorities and public services, have had some tough choices to make. Our funding has been significantly reduced but demand for services has increased.

'The return generated here comes without the risk that other propositions do, such as a retail unit or dilapidated social space'

“It’s why we’ve had to look creatively at solutions to make sure, as custodians of your hard-earned money, we’ve been looking after it safely. One of the best ways to do this is to invest wisely in short term investments.”

Since the decision was taken to make these investments at the start of 2017, the interest from them has generated nearly £700,000 – including £293,000 for the financial year 2018-19. One property fund has brought in £117,000.

He claimed these figures are ‘higher than the local authority average’ and that TMBC ‘is recognised as one of the best managed in the country’.

He said: “It shows our strategy is working. The return generated here comes without the risk that other propositions do, such as a retail unit or dilapidated social space.

STAND UP AND BE COUNTED: Keep River Lawn Green campaigners protest outside the CAB building

“Wise financial planning means we can tackle the really important issues facing our community. One of the things councillors in Tonbridge are most proud of is the new temporary accommodation in the town, which means those without a permanent home can stay closer to friends and family before they find a long term solution.

“It helps keeps communities together and vibrant, as Tonbridge is. It would not be possible if our finances were not in good shape.”

Last year the council spent £1.05million on a property on the High Street, funded entirely from developers’ obligations to the community.

It provides six apartments for families who are making applications on the housing list, reducing the cost of temporary accommodation.

But the Green Party contrasts the strategy with policies being pursued by neighbouring authorities in Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks.

'There is no reason why this building in River Walk could not have been repurposed as an attractive restaurant and bar with an attractive waterside terrace for customers'

“The council needs to revaluate its role as a major landowner in the centre of our town,” said Mr Hood. “They are completely out of step with other Conservative councils who are actually buying property and enlarging their portfolios to raise revenue and become selffunding.

“Sevenoaks District Council own The Black Boy pub, which they lease to Shepherd Neame. There is no reason why this building in River Walk could not have been repurposed as an attractive restaurant and bar with an attractive waterside terrace for customers.”

He added: “Wetherspoons are understood to have made a bid to establish a hotel on the site while retaining the original building.

“The council could have leased the property on a 100-year lease to provide income and retain the property in the long term.”

TMBC stated: “Contracts have been exchanged for the sale of the property, conditional on the purchaser obtaining planning permission.

“At present all other details of the transaction are commercially confidential. We are yet to receive the planning application, but we expect it to seek permission for residential development.”

The old CAB building falls within one of the town’s Conservation Areas and any development cannot detract from the original structure or the surrounding area.

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