Labour isn’t opposed in principle to a renovated, revitalised, or new Civic Complex. We are against the council borrowing £72m – landing tax payers with at least £2.4m of annual debt repayments for 50 years – without a full public debate about whether this is the best investment of public money in our town.
Labour wants to listen to the many people across the borough who are hit by austerity and work hard to pay their council tax and business rates. These are the people who will have to pay for this project, see increases in their tax bills, and further cuts to their council services as a consequence. Many of them may never use a new theatre.
Labour shares some of the detailed concerns being raised about the Civic Complex, but also believes we should all be posing some wider questions.
Firstly we should ask if the council has got its priorities right.
There aren’t enough houses available for long-term, affordable rent across Tunbridge Wells. Nearly 1,000 people are on the housing register. 138 of these are homeless or in temporary accommodation. Other councils propose a housing investment programme to fix this. Why doesn’t ours?
Our town is increasingly congested with cars pumping out fumes that are bad for our health. Why isn’t this council investing in tackling air pollution which recent research tells is a killer? Where is the support for better public transport to help people get to work and reduce the isolation of elderly people in our towns and villages?
Every month more people across the borough face poverty and become reliant on foodbanks. What message does it send to the ‘just about managing’ that the council is prepared to spend vast sums of public money on a new theatre and offices for its employees, while ignoring their needs?
Secondly we should be asking if the council should be investing in a more modest proposal.
There would almost certainly be wider support for a project that provides funds for more housing, better council services, decent accommodation for council staff, and an affordable theatre aimed mainly at the requirements of local residents.
There is a growing political consensus that we need a much wider public discussion of the options for the Civic Complex, including looking at better ways of investing any money that we can borrow, before the council makes its final decision in December.
The recent full council meeting rejected an attempt to ensure an explicit electoral mandate is in place before any council decision goes ahead. We should be concerned at the one-party arrogance of a council unwilling to ask for the approval of the people who will pay for the project.
Labour is one of an increasing number of voices, including the Liberal Democrats and Conservative ex-council leader Roy Bullock, demanding that the final Civic Complex proposal should be tested in a referendum to be held at the same time as next May’s council election.
If the Tories are so confident of their decision, why won’t they put it to voters for their verdict?