Tories wavering on theatre consider public referendum and a new leader
15th May 2019
THE controlling Conservative Group on Tunbridge Wells Borough Council is in disarray as it gathers tonight [Wednesday] to find a way forward and elect a new leader after last week's disastrous local elections.
Tories were left reeling on Friday [May 2] when they picked up just five seats from the 18 they contested. Among those who lost their places were leader David Jukes and Tracy Moore, seen by some as his successor.
Many members blamed the debacle on public opposition to the council’s theatre and civic square project.
The £90million Calverley Square development, along with national dissent over Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, led to the Conservative Party’s majority in Tunbridge Wells Borough Council being slashed from 32 to just eight.
Now senior members of the party, who met in private last night [Tuesday] to discuss the development, are thinking twice about the theatre project, with many distancing themselves from the project or refusing to comment on whether the plans should go ahead.
This is despite the scheme receiving independent backing from the Planning Inspector, who released his report into the Council’s use of CPO [compulsory purchase orders] just as the election results were being announced last week.
Mr Graham Dudley agreed with the Council’s assessment that the development could bring between £24million and £35million to the region each year.
Conversely, the council will have spent £10million on the project by the end of June, money the borough will not get back if the theatre plans are scrapped.
Several cabinet members have already ruled themselves out from taking over the running of the council from Mr Jukes, who lost his Speldhurst and Bidborough seat to Lucy Willis of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance—the party set up to oppose Calverley Square.
David Reilly, the current Cabinet Member for Finance and Governance took to social media to confirm that he would not be throwing his hat into the ring to become the new leader.
He told his Twitter following he would not be standing and added that it was a time to ‘reflect’.
On the theatre project he said: “I will be spending time over the next few days reviewing ALL options available as well as seeking views of colleagues from all parties.”
Another cabinet member has also ruled himself out. Councillor Dr Ronen Basu, Cabinet Member for Sustainability told the Times that he was definitely not putting himself forward and that the theatre plans were in disarray.
He said: “We do not know what is happening yet. There’s a lot of discussion going on about it [the theatre] at the moment and whether it will go ahead.”
It is expected that current Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Tourism, Jane March, will be standing to replace David Jukes, along with Alan McDermott, the Council’s Deputy Leader. He is the current de facto leader until a replacement is found and has confirmed to the Times his intention to stand.
He said: “I can confirm I will be standing for Leader.”
He added if he were to be elected while would ‘press on’ with the theatre project although he didn’t rule out a reversal of the plans.
He continued: “It is my view is that we press on with it until I have read all the facts and understand the entire situation.”
Cllr Barrington-King, who has served on TWBC since 2008 also confirmed to the Times he was standing and if elected would put the theatre project ‘to the people’.
He said: ““I was not considering standing for the leadership, but a lot of people have contacted me and said that I should stand as they believe I am a safe pair of hands.”
When quizzed about what his intention would be on the Calverley Square project, he said: “It would be my intention to go back to the people.
“It is something that has not been done. The perception was that it had and the people were behind it [the theatre], but we should go back and ask them what they want.”
Other Conservatives have said the project should be scrapped completely.
Cranbrook borough and county councillor, Seán Holden, who is also putting his name forward for the leadership, reportedly said: “The project should stop immediately and officials told to begin the withdrawal process.
"There are all sorts of legal ramifications but it means we carry on no further. It’s a case of ‘we are the council and we’re making the decision and we instruct the officers to do what people have instructed us’.”