Published: 10:39, 14 January 2021
| Updated: 10:41, 14 January 2021
A senior cabinet member in Tunbridge Wells has called for an end to commercial property being converted into residential use.
It comes after the town saw 200,000sq ft of commercial space lost over the last five years due to what is known as Permitted Development Rights (PDR).
It allows owners of offices to convert them into homes without seeking planning permission from local authorities.
And that has caused alarm in several Kent towns which have seen commercial space dwindle as a result.
Cllr Jane March, deputy leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and portfolio holder for economic development, is now calling for a halt.
It comes after a group of key leaders and businesses in the town united to try to put at end to further space being lost locally, whilst also promoting the benefits of Tunbridge Wells as the business hub of choice.
Led by Tunbridge Wells Together (the town’s BID - Business Improvement District), the new campaign #TWWorks has been launched in partnership with the council and key local employers.
And they believe the town could be set to miss out on new demand for local office space following the Covid crisis which has seen many London firms close their offices due to lockdowns and eye up regional hubs.
In addition, 5,000 companies were set up in Tunbridge Wells in the five years before 2020, but this figure is expected to soar as people set up new businesses after redundancy.
Cllr March said: “Tunbridge Wells has a huge pool of talent, a significant proportion of which formerly commuted to London. We believe that the number of those commuting will permanently decrease, with more working flexibly, part-time or in businesses locally.
"With the positive increase in town footfall, comes new and different demands for office space. With 200,000 sq ft lost to residential, I would like to call for a refocus to steer developments towards office space.”
The council’s figures recorded in December show that 17% of retail space in and around Tunbridge Wells is currently vacant.
Ross Feeney, CEO of Tunbridge Wells Together, adds: “We will not save the high street by converting our retail space into small residential flats. Instead we need to create office space which will bring more businesses to Tunbridge Wells, who in turn will fill our local shops and restaurants. We understand business rates are a hurdle, so we are also proactively campaigning for the exemption to be extended."
Rupert Farrant, senior partner at local commercial agents Durlings, says: “A significant proportion of retail space in Tunbridge Wells is currently lying vacant and we need to expect there will be more coming our way unfortunately. With some captial expenditure, these spaces could easily be turned into business centres or hot desks.”