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The Civic Buildings

At first the Society supported the Councilís plan for a new theatre and a civic centre at the western end of Calverley Grounds. We welcomed the idea of an auditorium larger and more adaptable than the Assembly Hall for a wider range of performances as well as concerts and conferences. We looked for a civic centre that was not just `offices`, but a replacement for the Gateway, and a focus for public meetings and contact between the public, councillors and officers.

In several discussions with the Leader and other councillors it gradually became clear that these hopes would be disappointed, while costs more than doubled and the development would seriously damage Calverley Grounds. With growing opposition in the town in May 2019 the chief proponents of the scheme departed the scene and the Council suspended work on the project before abandoning it.

In the Society we have long been concerned to protect the existing civic buildings, including the original 9-10 Calverley Terrace by Decimus Burton, the whole complex a listed landmark now much in need of restoration and eminently suitable for re-use. In 2013 we published proposals by Philip Whitbourn for them to be modernised internally, linked and retained in Council use with improved public access, with surplus space rented out. The complex would then form an active community centre, linked to the cultural and educational activity in what is now the Amelia Scott Centre.

Following the demise of the Calverley Grounds scheme the Town Forum, with the active involvement of the Society, took evidence from a range of interested parties and reported on options for the future. This led directly to the Council setting up a Cross-Party Group of councillors which came up with proposals to revive the civic buildings comprehensively as a vital community hub, with cultural, administrative and commercial components and links to the Amelia Scott. The Group were due to make proposals to carry this forward when the pandemic intervened.

We welcome this idea as a clear development of Philip Whitbournís suggestion, and are anxious to contribute to it as we escape from the emergency.

To see our 2013 proposals click here: Towards a Vision for Tunbridge Wells Civic Centre

The Cinema Site

The former ABC Cinema site has stood vacant for more than twenty 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 2019 the plan was revised to reduce the `town centre` elements further.

At the time of the consent the Local Plan 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.

As a Society we objected to the applicantís failure to follow the adopted Plan and make better use of a key town centre site, with reduced public access and no affordable housing or medical centre. We also criticised the pedestrian 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 respond to the facades in Mt Pleasant opposite with a succession down the hill.

The site has limitations, including the railway tunnel and the nearby important road junction, and we have made reasoned objections to the several previous proposals. But after numerous transactions the main problem now seems to be the value attached to the land, so that only the most high-value development would be viable. When this leads to a development almost entirely of high-price flats we believe there will be little or no economic or social contribution to the town centre.

The owners of the site have now carried out works on site to keep the planning application alive by driving the piles needed for the main building. No further work is now planned and the site is for sale.

The Local Plan

We responded to consultation on the new Local Plan, and expect to give evidence at the Examination in Public in autumn 2021. We will publish our evidence to the EIP when available.

The Plan sets out the Councilís intentions for how it will respond to development proposals. With a notional end-date of 2036 it is required to find sites for growth including about 13,000 additional homes throughout the borough, or about twice the current rate of building.

The legal principle is that necessary infrastructure and community benefits such as affordable and social housing are obtained from developers by agreement at the time of planning consent. We applaud the new Planís setting much tougher obligations for these benefits, and for finding sites for so much new housing without drastic effects for the town. It is also pleasing that much greater emphasis is given to the protection and enhancement of historic and natural assets.

But together with generally supportive comments we sounded one or two warnings. Under the existing Plan the Council has found it very difficult to achieve affordable housing and preserve heritage assets by agreement. Too often developers have been able to argue that the Planís obligations made their proposals unviable. The new Plan requires developers to incorporate all the enhanced obligations when making their development proposals, but tougher and better-defined objectives will call for greater political will to secure them.

A further issue concerns infrastructure such as roads and drains, some of which are notably inadequate for present needs. Developers required to fund improvements necessitated by their operations cannot be expected to address the deficiencies in the existing infrastructure. We feel the Plan goes about as far as it can with the present law, and something more fundamental is needed.

Another problem concerns playing fields and open space. Several sites `found` for housing are recreation grounds in residential areas. Many of these will be replaced by a sports `hub` at Hawkenbury. This reflects new guidance from Sport England about the needs of elite and/or organised sport. But we deplore the loss of access to local open space for casual use, 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. The Hawkenbury site promises severe congestion on surrounding roads for access and parking which could not be easily resolved.

Improving the Urban Environment

The Society has long urged the Council to upgrade the public realm in the town centre, with shared space and better surfaces for people on foot, less clutter, and reduced traffic. We believe a simpler, safer environment here would be cheaper to maintain, and give more scope for planting, benches, art installations and water features, which could in time be extended to further areas.

This is more urgent with the adoption of Active Travel and the need for more space with the pandemic. We were pleased when these principles were adopted in the Councilís Urban Design Framework (UDF 2013), and the temporary measures adopted more recently in the High Street. We would support further measures to reduce traffic and parking in the town centre.

But we are disappointed in the redesign so far. The plans for Fiveways did not take account of seating, lighting or planters, and signage was largely dictated by inflexible highway regulations. When some of these items were added later, the result was rather scrappy. A particular problem is the stone paving. The stone used was not that on which the Society was consulted. The slabs were laid touching, so that any movement causes the edges to chip, and the use of inadequate support means that the slabs do move, especially when crossed by vehicles.

We urged lessons to be learned in the next phase from Church Road to Monson Road. This was a much larger scheme but dominated by complex traffic needs. The bus companies would not accept much narrowing of the roadway in Mt Pleasant or the moving of many bus-stops. Reducing vehicle access affects the shops in Monson Road and deliveries to Calverley Precinct via Newton Road. Traffic arrangements are still under review, and when the future of the Town Hall is decided there may need to be further changes to Civic Way.

The Society was not formally consulted, and 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 around our fine war memorial. The UDF proposed this, and it is in effect what we now have, with non-essential traffic excluded for much of the day. In the UDF the steps between the upper and lower levels were quite broad, as a design feature and to provide for spectators. But to preserve the adjacent trees they have now been built quite narrow.

Observation suggests Upper Mt Pleasant is unnecessarily wide for the reduced traffic and we will follow the proposed review with interest. 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 experience of the earlier phases.

The Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society - Registered Charity No. 276545