The Local Conversation about the RVG Application for the Cinema Site –
Observations and the Case for Refusal
‘If refused TWBC would face an appeal’.
Unlikely: the Council’s policy is clearly set out (see below). In the event of an appeal the Council should win easily.
‘If refused against officer's advice TWBC would be liable for costs’.
This would apply only rarely and when the refusal is plainly perverse. It wouldn’t be perverse.
‘A refusal without a prospective alternative would encourage a public backlash’.
Possibly, but evidence from social media is that most of the public would see a refusal as a necessary step to avoid wasting the largest available development site in the town centre.
The ongoing work on the Town Centre Area Plan is the means available for planning a suitable objective with public support. The TCAP could draw in several key sites in the immediate neighbourhood
into a cohesive masterplan with vital uses (See Note 1. below).
‘The Council’s hands are tied by previous consents’.
Incorrect because the 2017 and 2019 consents were for mixed development with open market housing and a Section106 contribution, not an extra-care home without s.106 contribution.
‘An acceptable application should have arisen out of consultation and negotiation’.
The applicant tabled a complete project design for consultation and resisted attempts to negotiate meaningful changes. The application now on the table is substantially the proposal first publicised in January. The opportunity for negotiation has gone.
‘Mount Pleasant traders have deemed the project desirable’.
There is a small group of letters worded identically. TF and CS stand by their opinion that the retail space fronting Mount Pleasant is sub-standard and likely to prove unviable. In this case the whole site could be absorbed by extra care provision.
‘No need for excitement, the project will not happen. The application is an exercise in raising the land value’.
Why risk approving it when grounds for refusal exist? Approval would underwrite or even increase the site value which precludes future development which makes a real social and economic contribution.
‘An extra-care home is in line with Council policy for the site’.
Incorrect. The 2006 adopted Local Plan, the 2016 Site Allocations policy, and the emerging Local Plan all allocate the site for mixed town centre uses which include C3 Residential, not a care home.
‘The Council cannot refuse C2 Residential on the site’.
On the contrary, it can. The application must be determined based on what it is - not the use class order. It is for the elderly infirm (of whatever age) who will be required to sign up for at least one care package.
The Borough needs more extra-care housing to meet demographic change’.
TW has a stock of 183 extra care units. Figures by ICENI consultants indicate an additional need of 250-300 in the Local Plan period. The Local Plan records 400-466 units in the present pipeline (permissions or allocations).
‘Extra-care housing would contribute economically and socially to the town centre’.
This is fanciful. The project is for the elderly infirm as illustrated by the requirement to sign up for on-site care packages. Thus, it is likely many residents would seldom leave the complex and care home staff would be drawn from a distance.
‘An approval is urgently needed after so many years of dereliction’.
The Council is consulting on a plan for the town centre which will be available in about two years. The application site is a key element within it.
‘The Council needs this project to meet housing targets, affordable housing and infrastructure’.
As extra care housing it seems this development will not contribute to housing targets, affordable housing, or s.106 needs (see Note 2. below).
‘The development makes a positive contribution to a key site’.
Some notes in the developer’s application suggest this but the massing of the proposed buildings is far too dominant for an architectural context which is much smaller. Someone likened it to placing a standard can of beans in a chess game and this explains it very well.
‘It’s a striking modern design’.
Such an assertive design makes no concession to five adjacent listed buildings; the need is for a design which helps create a coherent urban space at a key location.
‘It offers a high standard of accommodation for those who need it’.
The design is for the elderly infirm but takes inadequate account of the adjacent night-club or the busy road junction; the courtyard is too small for use by public and residents and would be shaded by five, six and seven storey buildings; and the topography of the immediate
surrounds is extremely challenging for this user group.
Following a refusal of consent it would become possible to negotiate with RVG or a subsequent site owner. If RVG, a subsidiary of AXA, remains unwilling to discuss options for the site they might be persuaded by opening discussions on Phillips House and Eynsham House, which
lie opposite the Assembly Hall and the Police Station. It is understood both are to become vacant. They are subject to Article 4 Direction which would affect their market price. Lifting this restriction without any commitment to permitting any particular future use would help AXA in
disposing of them as well as showing them the good sense of their participation in a broader masterplan for this central part of the town, including the current application site, the Civic Buildings and their environs. The current Town Centre Area Plan would become a starting point for such an initiative.
Planning Authorities commonly treat extra care housing as residential institutional, use category C2. This does not count towards housing targets. Remarkably, in the emerging TWBC Local Plan extra care accommodation is classed as C3, independent housing. C3 would normally carry an obligation to contribute
to affordable housing (on site or elsewhere), to make s.106 infrastructure contributions, and to count towards housing targets. The recent consents for C3 on this site were exempted from the affordable obligation but were required to make s.106 payments. Council officers have agreed with the current developer
to waive the affordable and infrastructure contributions; it is not clear whether they believe the development would count towards the housing target.
On 8th September 2022 we sent the following statement to Members of the Society
Your Society Executive is bitterly disappointed by the current planning application for the Cinema Site
in the heart of Tunbridge Wells, the most prominent (and long-lasting) undeveloped site in the town.
The developers, a subsidiary of AXA, leading local employers, are proposing a large and very dominant care home for up to 300 elderly residents, with 166 flats with `extra care` facilities. The form is four large blocks up to 7 stories high of aggressively `modern’ design. The existing footpath would be diverted through a very small and over-shadowed central courtyard.
The Local Plan, which the Local Authority drew up and are expected to adhere to, defines the site for mixed town centre uses. The Plan shows that ample provision for elderly care exists in existing and approved schemes in the borough. As the council admits this proposal for care home use, will not contribute to the housing target, and there is no provision for affordable housing, and no requirement for the developer to pay for community benefits (so-called section106).
The Society Executive feel strongly that this development would be utterly inappropriate for the town centre, and by its scale and design comprehensively ignores its surroundings, which include 5 listed buildings, among them Trinity, which the Society were instrumental in saving for the town fifty years ago.
In the 6 months since the developers first published this proposal, the Society has organised a joint group of specialists with the Town Forum to negotiate with the developers. All suggestions put forward to them have been ignored. The group has produced a note `Questions for the Developers`(which is reproduced above in the form of The Case for Refusal).
We now understand the application is likely to be decided by the Planning Committee on 16th November. We understand that councillors may feel they have no alternative but to approve it. We therefore urge you to look at the proposals on the council’s website (the reference is 22/02304) and if you agree with us as soon as possible make representations to the Planning Department, your councillors and AXA. We will be repeating this message on social media and by email.
On 12th September we submitted the following objection from the Society
The Civic Society Executive considered the above application on 7th September and the members at a meeting on 8th September.
We find the proposal unsuitable in purpose and inappropriate in design. The Society was consulted at an early stage and at the developer's suggestion professional members from the Society and the Town Forum engaged in a series of meetings at which we made constructive proposals to make it less damaging.
It seems the only positive change has been a slight reduction in the height of the corner block although even the effect of this is reduced by the architect continuing the mass of the corner block around the sides. Details asked for during these discussions were not produced. The scheme is essentially unchanged since the original indicative drawings which seems to indicate a degree of bad faith in addressing public concerns.
The proposal for an extra-care facility `targeted at the over-eighties` conflicts with the adopted and the emerging Local Plan which designate the site for mixed town centre uses. The emerging Local Plan rightly gives priority to meeting the need for housing, especially affordable housing. The Local Plan also shows that the anticipated need for elderly care housing in the borough will be met by existing and forecast developments elsewhere.
Further, a decision at this stage on this key site would prejudge the outcome of the Town Centre Area Plan to which the Council is committed by the new Local Plan and on which work has commenced. We do not find the developer has made a convincing case for a development which conflicts in so many ways with established policy.
It was put to the developer that the same floorspace could be obtained by concentrating the bulk on the southern and western sides where there are fewer constraints from the scale and character of the five listed buildings, the locally listed buildings on the east side of Mt Pleasant, and the area around the War Memorial recently laid out as a quasi-precinct - in effect a town square. The scheme dominates these while failing to maintain the scale and proportions, especially of lower Mt Pleasant, the town's only formal street, where the retail units don't follow the topography by stepping down the hill like those opposite.
The access needs of the intended residents dictate a building form where the blocks are deep front-to-back and organised around long corridors, with an overall horizontal emphasis conflicting with the sloping site. The massing of the scheme appears based on that approved in 2017, criticised by the Society at that time, with an assertively vertical dominant feature on the town hall corner. The site is in a conservation area, which development is required to conserve or enhance. Of the previous scheme Historic England also wrote of the `harmful impacts` on its surroundings, and concluded `We… believe the application does not provide any direct heritage benefits, except (for) the enhancement of a site in the conservation area which has been blighted for many years`.
Planning Report to Members on 14th April 2022
As you probably know the Council have made an agreement with a commercial partner to manage the
Town Hall for fifteen years. Most of the building is to be used for co-working – short-term tenancies
for small businesses with the facilities provided collectively. The Council will occupy one wing of
the building itself.
While the terms of the contract are still to be worked out we are deeply concerned about this agreement which does not seem to fit the resolution of the Council two years ago to plan the future of the civic complex as a whole. We particularly want reassurance about the ability of the public to use the building for meetings, to get advice, and to meet their representatives. We also believe that the future of the Assembly Hall is in doubt unless fairly drastic changes to it are made, affecting public access and the facilities offered.
Moving on, we were briefed by the new owners of the Cinema site on their proposals. We were glad to be consulted at an early stage in their planning but had serious doubts about the scheme itself. A misleading headline in the press gave the impression that we favoured the design, and this prompted a considerable backlash on social media.
Like many of the protesters we think the design seriously inadequate for such a key site. It presents an eight-storey tower to the Town Hall corner, seriously out of scale with the five nearby listed buildings and unrelated to them. It doesn’t respond to the sloping site and some of the shops on Mt Pleasant would appear to be inaccessible. he central courtyard is too small to be a public asset and the flats looking on to it would have a very poor outlook.
We hope to be able to join forces with the Town Forum to make a joint response to the scheme we have seen, and the developer has agreed to wait for this. We understand a planning application will now be made in the autumn.
The proposals by a local businessman for the Pantiles spring have now received planning consent. The proposals have been publicised and briefly they are to enclose part of the arcade with a glazed screen, deck over one of the `wells`, market the spring water which would be stored and pumped on site, and display some of the history of the spring. We are not convinced this is a viable commercial plan in the space available, and worry about what would happen if it is found not to be. We don’t believe changes should be made to a listed building of this prominence without much stronger justification.
We believe the applicant’s enthusiasm and willingness to invest are laudable and have tried to make contact to discuss alternative approaches, probably involving the bathhouse to which the arcade was formerly linked. The bathhouse is now in separate ownership (Imperial Pharmacy) and any such project would be long-term, but in the meantime it is important not to compromise longer term possibilities. We will continue trying to discuss his plans with the businessman concerned.
Contract to share Town Hall with commercial user announced
In March the Council agreed to a commercial partner taking over the Town Hall for fifteen years, with the Council
occupying part as a tenant. The rest would be occupied by small businesses and start-ups sharing facilities - `co-working`.
The Society welcomes the provision of space and facilities for local business in surplus space in the Town Hall but feels
this step gives away too much for no clear reason.
It was known previously that the Council wanted to let part of the Town Hall for five years. In December 2021 we learned they intended to sign Immediately an agreement to lease the whole Town Hall for fifteen years. We protested about this time scale and about the nature of the deal. It seemed to us that this was not what the Council had agreed the only time that this was debated. We thought it would prejudice plans for the future of the civic complex as a whole and prevent the building being used by the public.
We asked for details of the proposed agreement and urged Tom Dawlings, then leader of TWBC, to defer a decision while the public was consulted. For the Society Paul Avis pointed out the proposal meant the Council giving up control of the Town Hall with effects on public access, securing the future of other parts of the complex, especially the Assembly Hall, and linking to the Amelia Scott. The agreement was slightly delayed but in March the Cabinet adopted a report which made it clear that during the contract `the Council … will have no legal right to interfere in the operation of the Town Hall`. Further `the partnership with a co-working provider will not necessarily bring an income stream into the Council`.
Paul says, `In 2019 the Council voted to seek a viable future for the Town Hall, Assembly Hall and Police Station as a new linked administrative, cultural, community and commercial heart for the town. Handing over the entire Town Hall for fifteen years appears to make this impossible. There is no plan, no vision. We believe Tunbridge Wells deserves better`.
The terms of the agreement depend on the contract still to be negotiated. This will now be in the hands of a new administration and when a new cabinet is in place we will press them to take notice of our concerns. According to Paul, `we deplore a process that without consultation has led to damaging and costly proposals for what is after all a public and community building in the heart of our town`.
To see the letter we sent to Tom Dawlings, the Leader of TWBC click here: Tom Dawlings Letter
The Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society - Registered Charity No. 276545