James Rands was elected Borough Councillor for Culverden ward in 2019. He is current Chair of Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats
Most residents of Tunbridge Wells want to keep the Assembly Hall Theatre (AHT) going and accept the borough council providing some subsidy. But that isn’t a blank cheque. The most recent subsidy was around half a million pounds for the year and post-COVID the council is likely to have a significant hole in its finances. On the other hand, there’s also a cost to closing AHT. Its listed status combined with recent government policy on planning permission for theatres will make it hard to sell and there is the risk that it gets bought up by a "developer" who doesn’t develop it for years. A derelict site opposite the old cinema site would be disastrous.
We’ve all heard wild claims from the Tories as to how much it would cost to bring the Town Hall and AHT up to standard. Firstly, we must acknowledge that issues such as leaky roofs and windows are maintenance issues and should have been dealt with as they arose. A stitch in time…
Secondly, we need to be clear on what bringing the Assembly Hall up to standard would mean. The Tories have been rather fond of equivocating between addressing some very real issues (such as poor backstage facilities) with replacing the existing building with a 1200 seat theatre designed for travelling shows. Those are different things with different costs. What “good enough” looks like depends on our ambitions for AHT.
We can entertain silly notions of rivalling the West End or we can ask what it would mean to be a really good regional theatre. The flat floor is useful for conferences (which would be good earners for the town) and the possibility of buying the police station opens new opportunities. However, whilst all of the good ideas coming out are cheaper than Calverley Square, they are not free. It will be hard to justify spending tax payer’s money without strong evidence AHT can be a success.
Some Conservatives have consistently claimed (with apparent glee) the AHT can never be profitable and will have to close. In February I noticed a freestanding billboard on the way into Crescent Rd carpark. Two shows at the AHT were being advertised. One had finished eleven months earlier and the other earlier still. I posted the photo on Twitter and a week or two later passed the same spot. The old posters were gone, but only because the whole billboard had been removed. You can no longer buy tickets at the front desk. The hoardings outside don’t advertise what’s coming up. And the number of shows has been declining for years. You could have been selling toilet paper and pasta this March, but if you only opened the doors to your shop infrequently, didn’t diversify, didn’t advertise and made it difficult for people to buy your product you’d still not have turned a profit.
I don’t know if the Assembly Hall Theatre has a long-term future. I do know the council will have to make tough calls as to what we want and what we can afford. But we can’t make a judgement on the affordability of AHT without trying to make it work. Instead we seem to be paying a lot of money to keep it empty.