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Planning Report to Members on 14th April 2022

As you probably know the Council have made an agreement with a commercial partner to manage the Town Hall for fifteen years. Most of the building is to be used for co-working – short-term tenancies for small businesses with the facilities provided collectively. The Council will occupy one wing of the building itself.

While the terms of the contract are still to be worked out we are deeply concerned about this agreement which does not seem to fit the resolution of the Council two years ago to plan the future of the civic complex as a whole. We particularly want reassurance about the ability of the public to use the building for meetings, to get advice, and to meet their representatives. We also believe that the future of the Assembly Hall is in doubt unless fairly drastic changes to it are made, affecting public access and the facilities offered.

Moving on, we were briefed by the new owners of the Cinema site on their proposals. We were glad to be consulted at an early stage in their planning but had serious doubts about the scheme itself. A misleading headline in the press gave the impression that we favoured the design, and this prompted a considerable backlash on social media.

Like many of the protesters we think the design seriously inadequate for such a key site. It presents an eight-storey tower to the Town Hall corner, seriously out of scale with the five nearby listed buildings and unrelated to them. It doesn’t respond to the sloping site and some of the shops on Mt Pleasant would appear to be inaccessible. he central courtyard is too small to be a public asset and the flats looking on to it would have a very poor outlook.

We hope to be able to join forces with the Town Forum to make a joint response to the scheme we have seen, and the developer has agreed to wait for this. We understand a planning application will now be made in the autumn.

The proposals by a local businessman for the Pantiles spring have now received planning consent. The proposals have been publicised and briefly they are to enclose part of the arcade with a glazed screen, deck over one of the `wells`, market the spring water which would be stored and pumped on site, and display some of the history of the spring. We are not convinced this is a viable commercial plan in the space available, and worry about what would happen if it is found not to be. We don’t believe changes should be made to a listed building of this prominence without much stronger justification.

We believe the applicant’s enthusiasm and willingness to invest are laudable and have tried to make contact to discuss alternative approaches, probably involving the bathhouse to which the arcade was formerly linked. The bathhouse is now in separate ownership (Imperial Pharmacy) and any such project would be long-term, but in the meantime it is important not to compromise longer term possibilities. We will continue trying to discuss his plans with the businessman concerned.

Contract to share Town Hall with commercial user announced

In March the Council agreed to a commercial partner taking over the Town Hall for fifteen years, with the Council occupying part as a tenant. The rest would be occupied by small businesses and start-ups sharing facilities - `co-working`. The Society welcomes the provision of space and facilities for local business in surplus space in the Town Hall but feels this step gives away too much for no clear reason.

It was known previously that the Council wanted to let part of the Town Hall for five years. In December 2021 we learned they intended to sign Immediately an agreement to lease the whole Town Hall for fifteen years. We protested about this time scale and about the nature of the deal. It seemed to us that this was not what the Council had agreed the only time that this was debated. We thought it would prejudice plans for the future of the civic complex as a whole and prevent the building being used by the public.

We asked for details of the proposed agreement and urged Tom Dawlings, then leader of TWBC, to defer a decision while the public was consulted. For the Society Paul Avis pointed out the proposal meant the Council giving up control of the Town Hall with effects on public access, securing the future of other parts of the complex, especially the Assembly Hall, and linking to the Amelia Scott. The agreement was slightly delayed but in March the Cabinet adopted a report which made it clear that during the contract `the Council … will have no legal right to interfere in the operation of the Town Hall`. Further `the partnership with a co-working provider will not necessarily bring an income stream into the Council`.

Paul says, `In 2019 the Council voted to seek a viable future for the Town Hall, Assembly Hall and Police Station as a new linked administrative, cultural, community and commercial heart for the town. Handing over the entire Town Hall for fifteen years appears to make this impossible. There is no plan, no vision. We believe Tunbridge Wells deserves better`.

The terms of the agreement depend on the contract still to be negotiated. This will now be in the hands of a new administration and when a new cabinet is in place we will press them to take notice of our concerns. According to Paul, `we deplore a process that without consultation has led to damaging and costly proposals for what is after all a public and community building in the heart of our town`.

To see the letter we sent to Tom Dawlings, the Leader of TWBC click here: Tom Dawlings Letter

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