The £500million projects that could ultimately change the face and the fortunes of our town
6th February 2019
Last week saw work begin on making the area around the War Memorial in Tunbridge Wells ‘more pedestrian friendly’. It’ll cost £1.3million, take several months and is just one of a string of projects that will ultimately transform the town at a joint cost of around £500million. Here we look at six of those developments…
1887 The Pantiles
Due to breathe new life into The Pantiles, Dandara's development will provide local traders with an expanded customer base right on the doorstep of the town’s famous promenade. The 127 apartment complex may have received some criticism due to its scale, but there is no doubt that the development is a vote of confidence in Tunbridge Wells and represents a significant investment in the town.
And even the most ardent critics of the new development’s aesthetic would probably admit I it represents a vast improvement on what it has replaced. As one planning office put it, the ‘1887 The Pantiles’ project will help ‘remedy the damage’ inflicted by the 1960s brutalist Union House.
In addition to the apartments, the new development is likely to include the provision of additional public space, a new water feature, retail units and much needed office space.
Perhaps one of them most anticipated projects in Tunbridge Wells is the £90million Belvedere development on the site of the former ABC cinema. Long considered the biggest blight upon the face of Tunbridge Wells, the notorious rubble strewn ‘grot spot’ has had residents feel a mixture of despair and embarrassment for the last 19 years.
The collective hopes of the town have been dashed numerous times as successive developers failed to deliver on their promises to renew the site. The plot has now been taken over by Altitude Real Estate who submitted plans last year to transform the wasteland into a new complex consisting of around 100 apartments, 60,000 sq ft of retail space and a new three-screen cinema, along with a landscaped garden and a water feature to link the new buildings to the town’s spa heritage.
Launched with a public consultation, the plans received overwhelming support from those who took part, with 80 per cent agreeing it would ‘improve the appearance of the town’. Progress may not have been as swift as many people had hoped, but Altitude has continuously asserted the project in on schedule and construction should begin this summer, with completion set for 2021.
Royal Victoria Place
The past few years have been rough on the Royal Victoria Place. Opened to much fanfare in 1992 by Princess Diana, the centre has suffered not only from the same harsh trading conditions that have afflicted high streets up and down the country, but also seen a lack of investment to help keep it up with the times.
A renaissance for Tunbridge Wells’ primary retail centre is just around the corner with British Land purchasing the property for £96 million in May, after seeing ‘huge potential’ for the retail plaza. The purchase price represents a significant amount of money so is a sign that the company has confidence in Tunbridge Wells as a place to do business. It had the pick of sites across the rest of the country.
While the developer has scratched plans for the site put forward by the previous owners, which included large units and a cinema, and has yet to outline its ideas for the shopping centre, British Land has a strong reputation for delivering the sort of high-quality retail experience that modern consumers expect. They have already turned Meadowhall in Sheffield into a busy, vibrant and modern retail complex, and their investment in Tunbridge Wells means that RVP will most likely go a similar way.
Amelia Scott cultural centre
Tunbridge Wells has a history and reputation for culture which is the envy of similar sized towns across the UK. That is why the £13.2 million earmarked to turn the town’s library and art gallery into a cultural and learning hub is such a welcome development.
Named after the town’s famous social reformer and women’s suffrage campaigner, Amelia Scott, the new complex will help show off what Tunbridge Wells has to offer by combining the town's library, museum, tourist information and gallery in a redesigned centre in Civic Way. It will also connect with the adult education centre and host Gateway services.
A council-led project, with the backing of KCC, the development has won £4million in funding from National Lottery and will be a positive showcase for public investment in the town when it opens in 2021.
Civic Way refurbishment
Construction started last week on proposals to give the entire Civic Way a facelift. The borough council won a £1million grant from the West Kent Local Sustainable Transport Fund to help pay for this scheme, which is set to continue the semi-pedestrianisation of the precinct and to improve the area around Mount Pleasant Road from the Monson Road junction to the Church Road/Crescent Road junction.
A major focus of the work is going on expanding the amount of pedestrian space and will introduce wide, stepped areas framing the war memorial to enhance it as a focal point. Like the Cultural and Learning Hub and the Calverley Square project, it forms part of the council’s five-year plan.
Calverley Square development
Costing just over £90million in tax-payers money and built on the edge of the eponymous park, the Calverley Square project is by far the most divisive development in Tunbridge Wells. But it also has the potential to be the most transformative.
Planning permission was granted for the scheme in May, which will see a 1,200-seat theatre, new council chambers, commercial office space and underground car park built at the entrance of Calverley Grounds.
Critics have described the complex as unnecessary, too expensive, not part of a masterplan and damaging to its surroundings. But many argue the council cannot afford to sit on its hands, do nothing, and watch the town stagnate.
With the cost of borrowing at near-record lows, now is the opportune moment to invest in the future of the town. Not only will the new council chambers be cheaper to run than those housed in the current civic complex, but the commercial offices will provide a return on tax-payer’s money through rent and provide much needed floorspace for the town’s businesses.
Around ten per cent of the original investment could be recouped straight away if the existing Town Hall and Assembly Hall were marketed for sale with their current assumed sale price of £9million (source Construction Enquirer).
It is the theatre which is poised to deliver the greatest benefits to the town, by drawing tourists and culture seekers with shows normally the preserve of the West End. The council has consistently pointed to the Marlowe in Canterbury as a model for the theatre, and it is hoped it can follow the same success in attracted both the big shows and big audience numbers.
The council believes this will deliver around £34 million of additional benefit to the local economy. Numerous businesses leaders have thrown their support behind the scheme as they believe it will help Tunbridge Wells remain an attractive place for the most talented individuals in their industries to reside.
It hasn’t been plain sailing for the scheme, though. An inquiry begins next week into objections for the Compulsory Purchase Orders [CPO] issued by the council. Among these is a CPO impacting part of Hoopers’ car park, which is required to access the back of the theatre complex. The council has, as yet, no contingency plans if this CPO is rejected.