Published: 00:01, 09 December 2018
Doubt has been cast about the suitability of the building chosen to house a future £2.5 million cinema in Tenterden.
A leaked email seen by KentOnline reveals Ashford Borough Council's conservation officer has significant misgivings over the chosen Grade II-listed Pebbles building.
The officer expressed "surprise" the high street building, which is currently occupied by White Stuff, was considered to be the most suitable venue as it presented issues that "go beyond heritage ones".
But Tom Evans, chairman of the cinema focus group which was set up by Tenterden Town Council to progress the dream of bringing the silver screen to town, described the officer's comments, made in an email to deputy town clerk Claire Gilbert, as "misguided".
He said: “We believe that the Pebbles building is fundamentally suitable as do our chosen architects Burrell Foley Fischer who have a wealth of experience in converting listed buildings into cinemas, where a precedent has already been set.”
The officer admits to only having a “quick look” at the plans, but nevertheless wrote: “It appears that the scheme would involve the replacement of the entire stairs, complete removal of the chimney stack, removal of all internal partitions, the removal of the first floor ceiling/second floor and the front steps.
“This is essentially gutting the building and apart from the loss of historic fabric, this will also have serious structural implications.”
Mr Evans said the building’s Grade II listing only concerned its “external features and facade” and did not mention internal structures.
In the listing, Pebbles is described as being part of a large 18th century block with a “stuccoed” appearance “moulded reeded frieze” and “hipped tile roof” but no reference is made to the interior.
Mr Evans continued: “It is very unusual for a conservation officer to give a free, informal opinion on something that is normally the subject of professional advice.
“We are getting the best professional advice from Burrell Foley Fischer the country’s foremost cinema architects and from Craigmount Consulting who are experts in cinema.”
A further row erupted in a tense internal committee meeting last month when the focus group initially asked the town council for £30,000 to progress a full building feasibility study, but was eventually recommended to receive £4,200 when the decision was deferred to a sub committee.
Complaints were made to Ashford Borough Council about Cllr Sue Ferguson’s conduct after she booed the apparent backstep and called it a “shame”.
The council confirmed it had “received representations” about the issue.
Cllr Ferguson, who apologised for her words at the time, said: “I passionately believe in a cinema for Tenterden and all the benefits it will bring to the town such as extra footfall in the high street and a boost to employment and our economy.
“Councillors need to start working together more for the good of the town, rather than trying to score points.”
An Ashford Borough Council spokesman said: “We liaise with stakeholders to support with pre-application advice and, in the case of listed buildings, consider a range of issues that could not only affect the integrity of the building but the effect any work would have on the local environment.
“Any application submitted would then be considered via the normal due process and would not be commented upon until the decision has been reached.”