In local politics, it is tempting to feel powerless in the face of the big issues facing our society.
Brexit comes up a lot on the doorstep, and while I continue to believe that we are a stronger nation allied to the European Union than outside it, my role is to focus on what’s within our power to change as Councillors.
The Council often portrays itself as the victim of Government legislation, which obliges them to take certain decisions. Is there more they could be doing to challenge this situation? I am sure there is.
Take the current lack of affordable housing, for instance. The Government requires Councils to set targets for levels of affordable housing in new large scale developments. But in 2012 the law was changed to allow developers to avoid building affordable housing if this impacts on their 20% profit margin.
Developer viability assessments, which allow them to avoid providing affordable homes, are private documents. Councils can open these up to external examination, but Tunbridge Wells has not done this. So how many of the 108 flats proposed on the former cinema site are affordable? Not one.
Then there is the issue of vacant homes. A recent freedom of information request from the Lib Dems revealed that more than 11,000 homes across the country have been empty for longer than 10 years, and over 60,000 for more than 2 years. This includes 102 properties in Tunbridge Wells. Again, Councils have powers to take over properties which have been vacant for more than 2 years, but Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has not used these powers. At a time when people are sleeping rough on our streets, we have one hundred potential homes sitting empty.
And the Council is crying foul over Government rules introduced in 2013 which allow offices to be converted into residential without planning permission (via a process called permitted development). This has resulted in a lack of office space in our town, as offices are converted into lucrative residential flats.
What can Tunbridge Wells do? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. Councils such as Merton and Sevenoaks passed Article 4 directions to restrict the ability of developers to automatically convert offices in certain areas. Tunbridge Wells has not.
Passive Councils deliver poor results for residents. It’s time we stopped playing the role of the victim, and started taking our destiny into our own hands.
102 homes across the borough of Tunbridge Wells have been left empty for years.
14 homes in Tunbridge Wells have been sitting empty for 10 years or more, research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.
The figures, uncovered through Freedom of Information requests, show that there are over 214,000 homes across the country that have been empty for six months or more. Of these, locally in Tunbridge Wells 102 had been empty for two years or more, 31 for five years or more, and 14 have stood empty for at least ten years.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) has failed to make use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO), powers used by local authorities to take over properties that have been empty for at least two years. This is despite the fact that some local families have spent Christmas without a home.
Nationally only 19 of the 247 councils in England and Wales that responded (the powers do not apply in Scotland) had used an EDMO in the past five years. Of these only six had used one in the past year.
Liberal Democrat councillor, Ben Chapelard, leader of the Opposition on TWBC, said:
“At a time when the homelessness crisis is worsening and more and more people are sleeping out in the cold on our streets, it is a scandal that so many homes locally are sitting empty.
“These homes could be turned into affordable places to live for those that need it across Tunbridge Wells.
“The Government needs to urgently review the current system which is clearly not working and TWBC needs to be given the powers and resources to bring empty homes back into use.
"It is shameful that TWBC has failed to use its existing powers to end this scandal. Local families have spent Christmas homeless because of Conservative inaction and ineptitude."
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.
The Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has released a 300 page report on the plans for a new theatre and civic offices on the fringe of Calverley Grounds ahead of the vote at Full Council on 6th December on whether to proceed. If a majority of Councillors vote for the scheme to continue, it will proceed to planning stage, with plans to be submitted early in the new year. Full Council is a public meeting, so please attend if you are interested in the future of our town.
The report contained some significant information that Councillors have been asking for, such as the business plan for the theatre, and intended uses for the current Civic Complex. It also contained details of the savings the Council would need to make in order to repay the £77m loan which would be taken out. These include: Charging £30 for garden waste collection, £280k reduced funding to community groups and a saving from not replacing a Director position. Additional savings will need to be made for the Council to balance the books (2018/19 financial year currently has a £600k shortfall).
Against a backdrop of massive cuts from Conservative central Government, Councils are being forced to run themselves as businesses, trying to use commercial schemes to balance the books. My question is whether or not the real owners of the ‘business’ - i.e. the people of Tunbridge Wells, the ratepayers - agree with our plans.
Unfortunately, it seems that, with our call for a referendum being rejected by the Conservative led council, we may never know.
Many residents have been in touch with us to register their support for a new theatre in the town to draw in local crowds and rival the West End. An equal number have raised concerns about the scale of borrowing involved, the impact on Calverley Grounds and the future intentions for the current Civic complex. I for one will be disappointed if those grand buildings are turned into commuter flats.
Ultimately this comes down to engagement with residents. There is a feeling that many have been told what the Council is planning to do, and asked fotheir views, rather than them being involved in the decision-making process.
Dave Neve has announced his intention to run in St. James in the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Elections in 2018 following his year in office as the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells. Rather than the usual title of the Worshipful the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells, Dave adapted the title as simply Mayor Dave - after all he has always been ‘a man of the people, for the people.’ He is working on a book about his experience in the mayoral office and says it was a tremendous honour.
Britain is on course for the longest period of falling living standards since records began in the 1950s, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation.
The think tank found that under plans set out by Philip Hammond in the Budget yesterday, the poorest third of households are set for an average loss of £715 a year by the end of the Parliament, while the richest third will gain an average of £185.
Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable commented:
“This analysis exposes the reality of Britain’s economic future under this Conservative government.
“The squeeze on pay and living standards is set to carry on until 2025, made worse by higher inflation since the Brexit vote.
“Meanwhile the Conservatives’ poor management of the economy means the budget will not be balanced until at least the 2030s.
“This was a truly regressive budget that maintained the deepest of the Conservatives’ welfare cuts, hitting the poorest third of households hardest.
“A Liberal Democrat budget would provide the large-scale investment in infrastructure, housing and research needed to boost living standards and productivity.
“We would reverse the Conservatives’ cruel welfare cuts, and bring economic certainty by staying in the Single Market and Customs Union.”
Responding to reports that the government has quietly shelved plans to reduce the rights of fresh EU arrivals because so few are now coming to the UK, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake MP said:
"The government did say their priority was to curb immigration. What they didn't tell the public was that their cunning plan to reduce the number of EU nationals coming to the UK was to crash the economy.
"Ministers have quietly conceded they don't need to reduce the rights of fresh arrivals from the EU27 because so few are now coming anyway. Ministers have already managed to decrease the attractiveness of Britain as a place for the brightest and the best to work - by their catastrophic economic mismanagement in pursuit of an extreme Brexit which has seen the pound and growth fall and inflation and interest rates rise.
"Nobody voted to become poorer - but making every British citizen more hard up turns out to be the government's immigration strategy. If it weren't so sadly serious, this would be quite some joke."
The Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats were pleased to host Baroness Parminter for a Pizza & Politics evening on Friday, October 20th. Until recently the Leader of the Lib Dems in the House of Lords and the Shadow Secretary for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Kate gave the local party an overview of Brexit and the potential damage which could be done both to the environment and rural affairs if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats are pleased to announce that Allen Lear will be standing as our candidate in the Southborough & High Brooms by-election on 7th September.
Allen was born and grew up in Nottingham and became a small business operator straight out of college when his family took over a public house. He has since run three Public houses and worked in the licensing trade for 10 years.
After leaving the hospitality industry, Allen made a success of a petrol station franchise. When it was sold, he moved on to work at a woodland site which provided outdoor activities and film location settings. He now runs a small, local childcare business.
Allen has identified the main problems with the Southborough Hub as a lack of planned affordable and social housing as well as traffic issues around the Yew Tree Road area. If elected, Allen plans to work with other Councillors to hold the stakeholders to account and to ensure that the Hub is fit for purpose.
Thanks to everyone who voted Liberal Democrat in the Kent County Council and General Election! Our candidates - Rachel Sadler, Marguerita Morton, Andrew Hickey, Allen Lear, Clare Bishop, Alan Bullion and Tom Deacon - are grateful for your support. We gained votes in both the County and General Elections and are gearing up for the borough elections next year.
If you would like to join as a member or support us in other ways, please go to the Get Involved section of the website and, well, get involved.