How many people across the borough would say that a hugely expensive project to build new council offices, an underground car park and a theatre right in the centre of Tunbridge Wells was the top of their priorities? We think the answer is ‘very few’.
Living standards continue to fall. We have a housing crisis where access to genuinely affordable housing is out of reach. Homelessness, poverty and the use of foodbanks is increasing. Many of us face traffic gridlock and dangerous air pollution. Fifteen bus services are about to be cut. Life for many is a struggle.
In the absence of a formal test of public opinion we have surveyed our 780 members. 68% of the respondents are opposed to the development, 25% support it, and 7% are neutral. In two informal referendums in the borough 80% voted to oppose the development with 20% giving it their support.
The project finances are a major cause of concern and look risky. The reported borrowing figure went up from £72m to £77m within weeks. Many public-sector projects overrun their budgets and fail to deliver on time. The final cost will certainly be more than £90m.
Anyone doubting this should look at the recent 3-council managed Southborough Hub project where an additional £1/2 million has already been demanded from Southborough taxpayers for completion of what will be more of a village hall than a promised ‘state of the art theatre’.
Annual payments on the 50-year civic complex mortgage will be in the region of £2.8m. The council is already gearing up for this – making savings by axing funds to community groups, selling off surplus land, and seeking to impose new charges for collecting garden waste.
This is just the start. The independent accountancy body CIPFA has reported that ‘the new income and charges will not cover the cost of the loan which will mostly be met from additional savings.’ They also say that paying of the debt ‘leaves limited resource available for other Council funded projects and investment’.
The council has failed to put up a convincing case that a costly project which is focused solely on Tunbridge Wells town centre, paid for by all council taxpayers, will produce economic and social benefits for everyone in the borough.
An ambitious council would work across the borough with local communities to renew towns and villages that feel neglected. It would collaborate with others to invest in housing, new business workspaces, better public transport and infrastructure.
The Town Hall and Assembly Hall might not be up to scratch but times are difficult. People are living on tight budgets and having to make do. Building costly new civic buildings, with more cuts and charges on the way, seems an extravagance too far.
The council should look again at the less expensive modernisation of the existing buildings, maybe as part of the exciting conversion of the art gallery, library and adult education centre into a £13m Cultural and Learning Hub. With creativity and flair these types of renovations can be functional, cost effective, and attractive.