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.
The Liberal Democrats have announced plans to address the housing shortage in Tunbridge Wells and build more affordable homes.
There are currently 988 families in Tunbridge Wells on a waiting list for council homes, down from 1,108 last year.
In addition, official figures show 376 homes in Tunbridge Wells have been empty for over six months.
The Liberal Democrats would introduce a legal requirement for smaller housing developments to include affordable homes, make it easier for local authorities and housing associations to borrow money and set up a new government-backed Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank.
The party would allow local authorities to hike up council tax on empty homes by up to 200%, including second homes. Local authorities could also choose to impose penalties on developers who leave plots of land empty for over 3 years, to tackle so-called land-banking.
Rachel Sadler, Parliamentary Candidate for Tunbridge Wells commented:
“Hundreds of families in Tunbridge Wells are struggling to find a decent and affordable place to call home.
“Many young people in particular are finding it virtually impossible to get on the housing ladder.
“At the same time, homes are sitting empty and plots of land bought by developers are not being used.
“The market is broken and has failed to deliver. That is why we are setting out radical plans to fix the housing crisis.
"A Conservative landslide would allow the government to take people for granted, meaning years more soaring rents and failure to build enough affordable housing.
"A better future is available. Have hope, vote Liberal Democrat and we can change Britain's future and build the affordable homes Tunbridge Wells needs."