Published: 20:42, 15 January 2021
| Updated: 11:23, 18 January 2021
After sitting derelict for more than 20 years, groundworks have begun on a patch of land described as the 'sore thumb' of Tunbridge Wells town centre.
This week workmen moved in on the former ABC Cinema plot in Mount Pleasant Road and Church Road but there are fears development won't go much further as the presence of heavy plant is likely to ensure planning consent does not expire next month.
Since 2017, the land has been earmarked for an £80 million development known as The Belvedere consisting of a new cinema, restaurants, shops and homes.
But a fully functioning complex may still be a while away.
A spokesperson for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council explains: "The owners advised the council that they would be undertaking some work on site from January 11. The existing planning permission for the cinema site was due to expire in February 2021.
"As a general rule to keep an existing planning permission alive beyond the implementation period, a number of things must be done including making a material start on the site."
This casts further doubts as to whether the proposed scheme will ever get off the ground along with the fact it was put back up for sale in October.
It is being run by Elysian Residences but owned by Prime Finance (Tunbridge Wells) SARS which is the fifth company to acquire the site since the cinema closed in 2000.
The building was demolished in 2014.
One councillor who has been following the development from the beginning says he has had enough of waiting.
David Scott (Con), the ward councillor for Culverden, said: "The vacant site is a sore thumb and it's very difficult for any council to actually force people to get on with it.
"Myself and others at the council have petitioned the government to find a way for us to tax underdeveloped land.
"The main cost to the developer is the interest rate which is next to zero, we need to find ways to increase the cost to carry to make developers get on with what they promise."
There have been previous calls for the council to step in and buy the land, but with the current asking price at £17 million, Cllr Scott says it is 'about double what it's worth' and as a consequence, legally the council is not allowed to buy it.
Prime Finance says it has had a lot of interest in the site since it was put up for sale as is doing all it can to get the development going one way or another.
A spokesperson from the company, which owns the ABC Cinema site, said: "We have had lots of interest in the cinema site and we are continuing to consider how best to bring the development forward. In the meantime, we will be implementing the planning consent granted and hope to provide a further update soon."
Before Elysian, Altitude Real Estate bought the site in 2016 and secured the planning consent for designs it had been working on for three years.
When it was sold to Elysian in 2019, aspects of the permission were heavily changed, reducing the number of shops, and the 99 apartments were increased to 108.
Now American-owned retirement homes specialist Elysian Properties is marketing the site through ADS Real Estate Advisors - with planning permission.
It was previously reported, ADS Real Estate is encouraging potential buyers that increasing housing yet again is the way to go.
The sales brochure says that although there is already permission for 108 homes "potential exists to optimise the existing residential consents and deliver significantly more units, subject to the necessary consents."