The Civic Centre
The Council's proposal to replace the Assembly Hall and the Town Hall with a theatre and offices at the lower end of Calverley Grounds (`Calverley Square`) caused strong opposition in the town, and has now been abandoned.
In 2013 the Society published proposals by Philip Whitbourn for the Council to modernise the present civic buildings internally, link them and retain them in Council use with public access, with surplus space rented out. The whole civic complex would then function as an active community centre, with business, representative and administrative functions linked to the cultural and educational provision in the proposed Hub (now the Amelia Scott Centre).
After considering the Councilís plans and consulting members, we wrote to borough councillors in November 2017 detailing our qualified support for the proposed theatre and our unhappiness with their plans for the Civic Centre, the underground car park and the impact on Calverley Grounds. We criticised the failure to plan first for the future of the present civic buildings, with the Police Station included; we objected to the bulk and design of the proposed office building, and the effect of the underground car-park and its access on Calverley Grounds; and the absence of a landscape plan for Calverley Grounds.
We are delighted that at a late stage the Council rejected the Calverley Square plans and authorised a cross-party group of councillors to advise on a way forward for the Town Hall and Assembly Hall. We believe these listed buildings have great potential in themselves, and in conjunction with the adjacent Amelia Scott Centre, to constitute a civic centre incorporating public facilities and performance space, in keeping with our 2013 proposals.
To see the 2017 letter in full click on this link: Letter to Councillors
To see the Society's 2013 proposals click here: Towards a Vision for Tunbridge Wells Civic Centre
The Cinema Site
The former ABC Cinema site has stood vacant for nineteen years, blighting a key site in the town centre. After successive changes of ownership, in 2017 planning permission was granted for a development largely of high-price retirement flats, with a frontage of shops and restaurants, plus a cinema. In November 2019 building on site has not yet started.
Consent was given under a Plan which specified a master-plan for a `mixed town centre` development of `high quality design` with public access, using `locally distinctive materials and features`, based on shops, offices, restaurants and a hotel/conference centre, with the possibility of `supplementary` housing and a replacement medical centre.
Accordingly the Society objected to the failure to follow the adopted Plan and make better use of a key town centre site, with negligible public access and no affordable housing or medical centre. We also criticised the unimaginative architecture, the materials, and the failure to respond to the setting and the adjacent listed buildings. We were particularly disappointed by the siting of a truncated tower on the corner facing the Town Hall and the failure to match the facades in Mt Pleasant opposite with a succession down the hill.
This site admittedly has serious limitations, including the railway tunnel and the proximity of the important road junction, and we have made reasoned objections to the several previous proposals. However the main disability seems to have been the price paid for the land by successive owners, so that only the most high value development would be viable. In the present market this means high price retirement flats, as evidenced on several other current sites, and we are concerned by the evidence that many of these are second homes which stand empty for much of the year, making little economic or social contribution to the town centre.
The Local Plan
We have responded to the recent consultation on the new Local Plan. This has a notional end-date of 2036 and is required to find sites for necessary growth including about 13,000 additional homes throughout the borough, and set out the Councilís aims for how development proposals will be handled.
The principle laid down by Government is that necessary infrastructure and community benefits such as affordable housing will be obtained from developers under `s.106 agreements` at the time of planning consent. We applauded the new Planís setting much higher standards for these benefits, including affordable and social housing, and for finding sites for the proposed housing without drastic effects for the town. We also welcome much greater emphasis being given to the protection and enhancement of historic and natural assets.
But together with generally supportive comments we sounded one or two warnings. The Council has found great difficulty achieving s.106 benefits and preserving heritage assets under the existing Plan. Too often developers have been able to argue that the Planís requirements made their proposals unviable. The new Plan requires developers to incorporate all the enhanced obligations in their development proposals, but higher and better defined objectives will call for a degree of political resolution to implement them.
A further issue concerns infrastructure, which in some respects is already notably inadequate for present needs. Developers required to fund improvements to (e.g.) roads and drainage necessitated by their operations cannot be expected to address the deficiencies in the present infrastructure. Something much more fundamental is needed.
We saw a further difficulty with playing fields and open space. Several sites `found` for housing are recreation grounds in residential areas. They will be replaced by a single sports `hub` at Hawkenbury with facilities for more intensive use. This reflects new guidance from Sport England about the needs of elite and/or organised sport. But the loss of access to local open space seems to us problematic, and possibly discriminatory, while the requirement to travel to Hawkenbury from other parts of the town conflicts with the Planís objective of reducing traffic and the need to travel. In this particular case there are severe capacity constraints on surrounding roads for access and parking.
Improving the Urban Environment
The Society has long urged the Council to upgrade the public realm in the town centre, with more space and better surfaces for people on foot, less clutter, and reducing the intrusiveness of traffic, with use of `shared space`. We argue for a simpler, safer environment, cheaper to maintain, with scope for planting, art installations and water features, which could in time be extended to further areas. We were pleased when these principles were adopted and welcomed the Councilís Urban Design Framework (UDF).
But we are disappointed in what has been achieved so far. The plans for the first stage at Fiveways did not include seating, lighting or planters, and signage was largely dictated by (seemingly inflexible) highways regulations. Some of these items have been added later, and the result is rather scrappy. A particular problem is the stone paving. The stone was apparently chosen by Kent Highways as a standard to be used throughout Kent. The specification allowed the slabs to be laid touching, so that any movement causes the edges to chip, and the use of an unapproved contractor means that the slabs do move, especially when they are crossed by heavy vehicles making deliveriesÖ
In spite of repairs the result in this area remains unsatisfactory, and we urged lessons to be learned in the next phase from Church Road to Monson Road, now just completing. This was a much more comprehensive design but dominated by complex traffic requirements. Funding depended on the support of the bus companies, who would not accept much narrowing of the roadway in Mt Pleasant or the moving of many bus-stops. Limiting traffic access affects the shops in Monson Road and deliveries to Calverley Precinct via Newton Road. There are also fears that York Road and Dudley Road could become rat runs. At the same time the lack of a plan for the Town Hall has limited options for Civic Way.
Planning applications did not appear until work was well under way, and then much of the scheme was deemed not to need planning or listed building consent. We had long backed the idea of a civic square as a visible centre of the town and a space for civic events, and were glad to see the UDF propose this around our admirable war memorial. The planning application dealt only with the memorial itself, steps on each side and a platform behind the memorial for the civic party. In the UDF the steps were quite broad, as a design feature and to provide for spectators. They have now been built quite narrow, to preserve the adjacent trees. But excavating for the steps meant the trees had to be sacrificed, and the steps remain narrow, which we regret.
At time of writing the scheme is almost complete and we will assess it. We are supporting the residents of York Road in their bid to have the road made a cul-de-sac. And we will view the proposals for the next phase of improvements from Church Road to the Great Hall with the experience of the earlier phases.
The Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society - Registered Charity No. 276545