A charity that runs a well-used community centre has hit out at the “aggressive approach” of a group hoping to build a cinema and its attempts to buy land the building stands on.
Trustees of Highbury Hall in Tenterden say they have been targeted with “persistent” requests to sell up – but the Tenterden Cinema Focus Group says there has been a “fundamental misunderstanding” over the proposal.
The team behind the cinema project revealed its ambitions for a screen and “culture centre” on the plot between Tesco and the high street in August 2021, after its original plan fell through.
At first, it hoped to redevelop the Pebbles building in the high street but the £2.6 million scheme was derailed amid spiralling costs and coronavirus uncertainty.
After earmarking the Highbury Hall site as a potential replacement, the group even went as far as to draw up designs for how it could look.
Since then, the trust says the cinema group has continued to try to enter into talks over the site, as well as posting on social media.
The most recent post on the group’s Facebook page came on May 25, in which chairman Tom Evans insisted that the hall represented “the only suitable site which we have identified”.
“We have approached the hall trustees three times since February 2021 but they have not been willing to enter into discussions,” he added.
Nikki Gooch, chair of the Highbury Hall Trust, said: “Highbury Hall is a registered charity, and is a much-loved and extremely well-used local resource.
“Almost 30 community groups use the hall, welcoming more than 2,000 local residents every month. We even lay on a Christmas Day lunch for pensioners and people living on their own.
“The suggestion by the Cinema Group that Highbury Hall could be part of a cinema development ignores the fact that it is a registered charity which precludes us from selling it or changing its use.”
One of the justifications used by the cinema group has been that the hall in its current state is in need of repair, with part of the building supported by steel props.
However, Ms Gooch said that work was being planned during the summer to replace a window section.
“We have received tenders, and plan to complete the work during the summer, which will not interfere with the use of the hall,” she added.
“We will pay for the work out of our own funds. We will not be asking for taxpayers’ money from the town council.
“We have explained all this to the cinema group, but they persist in emailing us and publicising their ambitions – it’s aggressive and unnecessary.
“Our message is consistent: Highbury Hall is not for sale to them, or indeed, to anyone else.”
Mr Evans, responding to the trust, said that it had “misunderstood the position of the group”.
“As previously reported, we have regretfully ruled out the Pebbles building as a possible location for a Tenterden neighbourhood cinema, due to the high costs imposed by planning restrictions and listed building consent,” he added.
“We have never suggested or intended buying the Highbury Hall, but we do believe that – subject to agreement with the trustees – the site could be redeveloped to accommodate both a neighbourhood cinema and a community hall.
“This would maintain the purposes and functions of the Highbury Hall Trust while bringing a much-desired cinema to Tenterden.
“We have on three occasions approached the trustees in the hope that we could discuss ideas for a possible joint initiative via a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, but have so far been unable to arrange a meeting.”