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."
I would like to build a positive approach to the town's redevelopment based on the principles of creating a unique town lead by independent shop retailers offering something the internet can't provide. It will take hard work delivering a consistent policy over 10 to 15 years, but it does work elsewhere. Tunbridge Wells needs a new vision for its failing town centre.
The Liberal Democrat vision is for a town and borough where people of all ages and backgrounds want to and can live, learn, work and play, something that has not been delivered by the Conservatives.
In the past, our town had a large catchment area where people were prepared to travel for products, services and entertainment they couldn’t find elsewhere, this meant landlords knew higher rents could be charged as the footfall in Tunbridge Wells was good. This changed with the rise of large out of town shopping centres, and then the internet resulting in a far heavier toll on Tunbridge Wells than towns such as Tonbridge, Sevenoaks or Crowborough that offer more compact centres providing quick local convenience.
The loss of large chain stores has resulted in our current retail offering being unsustainable and if this is allowed to continue we could end up seeing the town fragment further. We, therefore, need a strategic vision to attract more businesses and improve the quality of our town.
There is no magic solution that can solve these problems, it will require a lot of work from the council with both private and public investment to revive its fortunes. We can, however, look at examples where this turnaround has been successful and adapt these to the needs of Tunbridge Wells.
20 years ago places like Folkestone was even more run-down than Tunbridge Wells is, thanks to the De Haan’s trust and with some seed investment, out of the ashes, the Creative Quarter was created where derelict shops have been converted into smaller units allowing independent retailers to start and thrive. Today the charity owns 90 properties containing 240 businesses and 60 town centre flats for social rent plus a large creative co-working space. The charity now has a property portfolio worth in excess of £50m creating a vibrant mix of unique independent shops.
We can also look at Tonbridge for another example, with its council’s policy of helping shops in run-down areas with match funding grants to improve shop frontages and insulation which again upgrades the area.
Tunbridge Wells council owns a considerable amount of underutilized space in and around the Town Hall, with a little bit of consistent vision and an attitude of doing the small things well, there is absolutely no reason why we could not use these assets for both conversion and capital to follow similar reconstruction and support paths making our town a better place to live, attracting more people to visit.
Mark Ellis is a Tunbridge Wells Borough Councillor representing St. Johns.