If I were to give you £1,000 this Christmas, how would you spend it? This was the question facing us as Borough Councillors last Wednesday; whether to borrow £77m (the equivalent of over £1,000 per Council Tax payer) to invest in a new £93m theatre and council office development.
I love the unique culture of Tunbridge Wells, and firmly believe we should plan for the future of our town. But the mere fact of investing money does not mean that the investment is the right one.
There is scope in Tunbridge Wells to do something really exciting. We have enthusiastic, created, gifted residents. But is what’s been proposed to us the best we can do?
For example, we will be digging up part of Calverley Grounds in order to build a 250-space car park underneath, with a payback period of over 40 years! Even our own MP Greg Clark accepts that we will move towards autonomous, self-driving vehicles in the future. So why are we ripping up parks to build car parks?
As for the theatre, I am excited by the prospect of being able to watch West End shows in Tunbridge Wells. But again I would ask whether what’s being proposed is the best we can offer. The limitations of the site (Great Hall Car Park) mean access will be tight, especially for the touring HGV’s which need to access via Hoopers Car Park.
Looking at the Bridge Theatre in London, this came in at only £12m and has removable seats, allowing them to host conferences and flexible theatrical performances. Both of these could bring additional revenue and visitors to Tunbridge Wells.
My other main concern is that this development will be built on the backs of the poor. Among measures identified to pay for the borrowing (annual repayments of £2.3m a year) is the introduction of a flat £30 charge for garden waste collection, which will apply to all residents regardless of income.
More worryingly the Council proposes using £250k cuts to community groups to pay for the civic development loan. At a time when many are struggling to make ends meet and rough sleeping is on the rise, cuts to local charities and community groups like the Citizens Advice Bureau will have a savage impact on the neediest in our Borough. Perhaps the people of Tunbridge Wells recognise this better than their Conservative Councillors, which explains why every referendum carried out to date is against the scheme. We can do better, Tunbridge Wells.