Opponents to Calverley Square challenged to deliver alternatives
19th June 2019
CAMPAIGNERS opposed to the controversial £90million theatre and civic centre have been challenged to come up with a viable alternative.
Tunbridge Wells Alliance, the party set up to fight the project, lost the first round on Monday [June 17] when it failed to win support on its demand for an immediate halt to the development at an Extraordinary Full Council meeting.
Council Leader Alan McDermott said that any alternative, such as staying at the Town Hall, needed to make sense.
He warned fellow members and those packed into the public gallery: “The Town Hall will cost us close to £50million to do up and at the end it will be worth £15million. The new complex [Calverley Square] will cost more, £77million, but it will be worth £77million.
“Whatever we do we need to borrow the money. So I would love to hear from the other parties on what they would do to invest in developing Tunbridge Wells.”
The call for valid alternatives has been echoed by business.
Gavin Tyler, managing partner at Cripps Pemberton Greenish, one of the largest law firms in the South East said: “Tunbridge Wells has a lot to offer but we cannot sit still. Whatever that vision is we have to get on-board.
“We have elected leaders in the town and the vision should come from them.”
Mr Tyler, who sits on the town’s BID board [Business Improvement District], continued: “I’m not a fan of national politics being involved in local governance. What we want is the right people in the right jobs that know the community and who can engage with the electorate and come up with answers.”
The former Skinners’ pupil added: “If the Calverley development does not go ahead, we need something else.”
He added: “It is incumbent on those against Calverley Square to come up with alternatives for the town.”
Monday’s Full Council meeting had been called by Liberal Democrat Leader, Ben Chapelard [St James Ward] and Alliance Leader Nick Pope [Park Ward]. It follows disastrous local election results for the Conservatives that saw the controlling party lose 13 seats.
However, before the meeting could go ahead, Cllr Pope was required to leave the chamber and was not permitted to take part in any vote or debate on the project because of ‘pecuniary interests’— his wife owns a flat that is indirectly affected by the development. Cllr Pope was aware of the restriction before he stood as a candidate.
Four motions had been proposed, which if passed could have seen an end to Calverley Square, the project that has dominated local politics since its inception four years ago.
However, in a bold piece of political manoeuvring by Council Leader Alan McDermott, an amendment was voted through that not only keeps Calverley Square ‘on the table’ but was enough to satisfy most of his own party rebels opposed to the scheme.
The amendment, proposed by Culverden Cllr, David Scott, was attached to the Alliance motion to ‘stop all new expenditure on the Calverley Square project with immediate effect’.
Cllr Scott’s amendment added: “…other than, with the involvement of all political parties and other relevant stakeholder groups, to manage an orderly consideration of all alternative proposals.”
The motion effectively freezes spending on Calverley Square, which so far has cost taxpayers more than £10million, but forces opponents of the mixed-use scheme to come up with an alternative solution before the controversial development can be dropped.
It also negated the Liberal Democrat’s motion to pause spending on the Calverley project, and Ben Chapelard withdrew it from the agenda.
The amendment was enough to satisfy the likes of Conservative Cllrs Sean Holden [Cranbrook] and Dr Linda Hall [Goudhurst & Lamberhurst] who ‘never have and never would vote for the theatre’ who said the amended motion represented a ‘stepping stone’ to stopping the project if an alternative is found.
The amended motion was passed 24-20.
OPINION: What happens when protestors meet political reality...
The political party that is Tunbridge Wells Alliance was created to fight plans for the new £90million civic complex and theatre to be built on the edge of Calverley Grounds.
This newspaper carried a front page story on its launch and was largely supportive believing that a wider spread of political views on any council has to be a good thing.
And the Alliance has done well taking six seats from the Tories at the May council elections. So far so good.
On Monday, though, their ‘stop-the-theatre-at-any-cost band wagon’ hit a bit of a bump. It came up against political reality.
At an Extraordinary meeting of the Full Council the Alliance spin masters found themselves outfoxed by the Tories. They had hoped to stop the Calverley Square project dead in its tracks with support from other dissident councillors.
Instead Conservatives tabled a last minute amendment that won enough votes to put the project on pause while alternatives to the development are considered, which forced the Alliance to vote against their own motion.
First blood then to the new council Leader Alan McDermott.
What the amendment does is force the Alliance to stop being a single slogan party and come up with alternatives to Calverley Square that make financial sense and stand up to scrutiny.
It’s easy to be a protest group and stir the emotional pot. The real test comes when you have a seat at the table and have to act responsibly.
So, how did the Alliance react to the Monday night vote?
The Leader of the Alliance group on the council Nick Pope took to social media and announced he found himself ‘checking which councillors’ seats are up for election next year.’
He then named the dozen Tories who will be defending their wards in a non-too subtle attempt to bring them into line.
When politicians resort to public threats it’s normally a sign they’re rattled…
R Moore, editorial director
Richard Moore, Editorial Director