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Tunbridge Wells assembly opts for new theatre - despite opposition

By Alan Smith

Tunbridge Wells will press ahead with a comprehensive £86 million scheme for a new civic centre, theatre and office development, the council has decided.

But to say the decision left some Tunbridge Wells residents disgruntled would be an understatement.

The council meeting at the Town Hall yesterday was frequently interrupted by shouts from the public gallery, with the Mayor, Cllr Julia Soyke, threatening to clear the area.

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An interruption from the public gallery

Eventually several members of the public stormed out of their own accord, shouting that the meeting was a “stitch-up” and saying “Nobody listens to Joe Public.”

But calls for a referendum were ignored by councillors who went on to vote by 30 votes to 13 to progress with the development in Calverley Grounds. Three members abstained.

After the debate, the leader of the council, Cllr David Jukes (Con) announced himself delighted.

“We’ve been working on this for over three and a half years. There’s still a long way to go. There’s still the planning process to go through and going out to tender,” he said.

“Things don’t happen quickly in municipal business - particularly in Tunbridge Wells.

"It’s taken 17 years to get something going on the cinema site, for example. It may be a long time before this scheme is built, but we’re on our way.”

David Jukes, leader of Tunbridge Wells council
An artist's impression of the proposed civic centre from Calverley Grounds
The new civic centre would include a council chamber, flexible spaces, facilities for weddings and offices for private lease in Mount Pleasant Avenue

He was supported by Cllr Tracy Moore (Con) who declared the 30 votes in favour to be a “thumping majority”, and said the council had expended a lot of effort in trying to take the public along with them.

There were some public speakers of favour of the scheme, but many opponents were concerned at both the loss of the parkland, and the enormous expense of the project - which will require cutbacks in other services to fund.

Ben Van Gratten of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance said: “I’m disappointed, but not surprised. We heard the same arguments over again, but they are still missing the nub of the matter. It is a very expensive project for a theatre that is just going to lose money.“

Another Alliance member Jim Kedge, said: “Most people agree that the current civic centre and Assembly Hall are not ideal, but this is just change for change sake.”

The debate in the council chamber

Cllr Jukes disagreed, saying the scheme would be “for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to use and enjoy.”

A planning application will be lodged in the spring.

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