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Plan for museum to honour Hyde and Regents Park designer Decimus Burton in Tunbridge Wells scuppered after buildings to go on sale

A bid to save a project to honour one of the UK's greatest architects with a museum has failed.

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council wants to sell off two Grade II-listed villas, which are among 70 buildings in the town designed by Decimus Burton, the man behind London’s Wellington Arch, Hyde Park and Regents Park.

The two Decimus Burton villas in Crescent Road
The two Decimus Burton villas in Crescent Road

But the properties in Calverley Terrace, expected to be worth in the region of £1.8 million, had been the subject of plans that were being jointly drawn up by the Tunbridge Wells Civic Society and the Decimus Burton Society.

They wanted to base a museum there dedicated to the life and works of the famous man, who was brought up in the town.

However, an attempt by a backbench councillor to have them taken off the market so that ambition could be further explored failed when the chairman of the finance and governance advisory board refused to consider his motion.

The written report submitted by officers to the committee made no mention of the museum plans.

But during the public speaking session, Paul Avis, the chairman of the Civic Society, explained how the societies had been working up plans on how to use the two villas for a museum for over a year and how in April they had presented a detailed business plan to the council for the project.

Decimus Burton designed more than 70 buildings in Tunbridge Wells
Decimus Burton designed more than 70 buildings in Tunbridge Wells

He asked that the buildings, which have already been placed on the market for sale through agents Lambert Smith Hampton, be immediately withdrawn and the societies be given the chance to present their plans to a meeting of the full council so that every councillor had the opportunity to vote on the scheme.

He was supported by a visiting councillor, the deputy mayor, Cllr Nicholas Pope (TWA), who said: “Selling the properties is at odds with the most recent work that the council has been doing to shape the town centre.”

He also said that selling the properties now when the market was depressed was poorly timed and felt like “an act of desperation” to meet the council’s budget shortfalls.

He argued the decision to sell should be deferred until at least the council had finalised its Town Centre Management Plan, which would have the added bonus of giving the local groups time to refine their museum project.

But when Cllr Lance Goodship (Con) proposed that the committee recommend that the buildings be removed from the list of assets for disposal, for this year at least, in order to give the Civic Society more time to finalise their museum plans, he was shot down by the council’s monitoring officer, Claudette Valmond.

Cllr Lance Goodship wanted the sale halted
Cllr Lance Goodship wanted the sale halted

She advised that the buildings had been placed on the surplus asset register by a vote of the full council in March last year, and that the committee had no power to overturn a decision of the full council.

Cllr Goodship argued the landscape had changed since March, saying: “It is clear now that there is reason to change course,” but again Mrs Valmond repeated her advice, and so Cllr Hall (Lib Dem), who was chairing the meeting refused to accept a vote on Cllr Goodship’s motion.

Cllr Hall also said that the Civic Society had already had more than a year to draw up its museum plans and that all the while the building was empty, the council was facing ongoing maintenance costs, although one of his officers stated that those were “minimal.”

In fact, a part of the building is let to the ambulance service for use as a toilet for staff, and part of the car park is let to the police for overspill parking, with both leases bringing in an income to the council.

After almost 90 minutes of debate, the committee voted to advise Cllr Christopher Hall, who is the relevant cabinet member, to continue with the disposal of the sites.

The council previously stated that the sale of the buildings “provides an opportunity for any society or organisation to seek to acquire the property.”

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