Residents of Tunbridge Wells, dismayed to hear that the ‘grot spot,’ aka the old Cinema Site is back on the market, should call on Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to change tack. Twenty years this fiasco has been ongoing, with no sign of this ever ending as developer after developer submit their plans only to pull out. It has become synonymous with Tory leadership in Tunbridge Wells: twenty years of lack of investment, pride, decline, and decay. ‘A developer’s graveyard,’ the chief executive of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council called it. However, one person’s disappointment is another person’s opportunity - an opportunity to change the narrative.
What has been tried in the past hasn’t worked. Do we really want another twenty years of the same? It’s time for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to say enough is enough and think radically. TWBC must take control of the site. The residents surely want this. We love our town and want to see it truly flourish. Perhaps the site can be leased, but perhaps TWBC will need to buy it, but not for £17 million. Amidst a pandemic, recession and in a situation when high streets have been in decline nationally for years, that’s a rather optimistic price tag.
My own ideas include a building with a galleria/atrium courtyard that could house an indoor market: a mix of Covent Garden/ Borough/ Greenwich markets, but with a touch of Hay’s Galleria. It could have a bijou cinema, art gallery and creative space; a water feature to hint at our heritage; restaurants; retail start-ups and street entertainment of the kind you see on London’s South Bank. It could be a venue for food and drink festivals, and a winter Christmas market with a tree and lights turned on by the pantomime stars from the Assembly Hall Theatre. Combined with the pantomime and the ice rink in Calverley Grounds, it would establish Tunbridge Wells as a winter festival destination. It would link up with what we already have, especially if we brought back the Christmas Express train, joining the top and bottom of town, increasing footfall and driving the economic development and regeneration of our town.
But this is only one idea and residents have shared many more on social media over the past few days. TWBC needs to know what the residents think. What would we like to see created here? This is the opportunity to try something different. We the community can unite in a common aim, to involve ourselves. TWBC need to listen to our voices, our ideas. Consult and collaboratively plan together and work towards rejuvenating this town. So, let us take this opportunity, for it may never come again. Let’s put the Royal back into Tunbridge Wells and give the community something to be proud of.
Twenty years after the ABC closed (and five owners later), the news that the old cinema site is up for sale yet again is frustrating and depressingly familiar. This grot spot saga blights our town and we cannot go on waiting on developers who do not have the best interests of Tunbridge Wells residents at heart.
We do not know why the latest owners have pulled out, but it’s very possible that the Covid pandemic has rendered their Belvedere scheme, consisting primarily of retirement apartments, unviable. From this situation springs an opportunity. It’s time for the council to step up. A change of tack and some creative thinking is required to ensure that this site is turned into something that will benefit our community.
We are asking the council to speedily examine all options for acquiring the site on a fair-value basis for taxpayers, then to consult with residents to find out what they would like to see developed there – some genuinely collaborative planning to enhance the town. It could be a park, a market, affordable housing - there are numerous possibilities and if we crowd source those ideas we’ll get some really good ideas we hadn’t considered.
Crossing our fingers and hoping for the best has comprehensively failed. It’s time for some fresh thinking at the council, otherwise it’s likely that we will be living with this grot spot for another 20 years.
James Rands and Justine Rutland, Liberal Democrat Councillors for Culverden Ward
According to analysis of the Government's new algorithm for housing targets by the Local Government Association, new house building in the Borough of Tunbridge Wells compared to the numbers built in recent years will be expected to increase by 184%. In contrast, many areas in the North of England will see their housing targets reduced. This is part of a Government review of the planning system published for consultation in August. The Government proposals will also reduce or remove the right of residents to object to applications near them.
Nationwide the majority of planning applications are given the go ahead by local authority planning committees, with permission granted to around 9 out of 10 applications. Across the country there are existing planning permissions for more than one million homes that have not yet been started.
“This increase in the housing target is totally unacceptable” says Cllr Trevor Poile. “With so many existing planning permissions not yet started, the Government should be focusing on the developers not local councils. Tunbridge Wells already has onerous housing targets and does not need another increase."