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Failed Calverley Square project costs Tunbridge Wells £10.6m

The Calverley Square project in Tunbridge Wells is dead. But the costs are still mounting up.

Even cancelling the project is going to cost more than £10m, it was revealed this week.

Residents are still paying for Calverley Square even after it was rejected
Residents are still paying for Calverley Square even after it was rejected

The Conservative-led borough council had spent four years developing the proposals for a new 1,200-seat theatre, town hall and underground car park, within the Calverley Grounds, but the scheme was finally rejected last October.

One of the chief concerns of opponents had been that the huge £108m cost of the project which would have saddled the council with debt for years into the future.

The council had proposed to borrow £72m and would have had to find £2.4m every year just to cover the interest.

But now it seems even cancelling the project is expensive.

Figures presented to the finance and governance cabinet advisory board on Tuesday showed that the final expenditure on the failed project would amount to £10,627,960.

Tempers flared over Calverley Square at a protect outside Tunbridge Wells Town Hall
Tempers flared over Calverley Square at a protect outside Tunbridge Wells Town Hall

The figure includes £731,000 spent in the legal fight to obtain compulsory purchase orders for the properties the council needed to remove to make way for the development, and £532,000 for the purchase of one of those properties, known as The Lodge, that had been home to a dentists' surgery.

Other costs include the fees paid to consultants Avison Young and Mace to shape the plans.

The council still has the value of the properties it purchased.

The portfolio holder for property and major projects Cllr David Scott had been very much in favour of the scheme, saying that re-development would have brought an estimated additional £1.76bn spending to the town's economy over the next 50 years.

But the council changed its view after the newly formed Tunbridge Wells Alliance, a party of residents opposed to the scheme, dislodged the council's Conservative chairman at the borough elections in May last year on its way to gaining six seats.

Cllr Nicholas Pope: 'We need an independent audit'
Cllr Nicholas Pope: 'We need an independent audit'

Cllr Nicholas Pope, an Alliance member for Park Ward, called for an independent external auditor to be called in to investigate the whole of the council's handling of the project.

He said: "The council should never have proceeded to Stage 4 of the project, by the time it did so it was clear there was considerable opposition. If it had stopped then, it could have saved £6m."

Asked whether engaging external auditors wouldn't just add more cost, he said: "Yes, but this is bigger than just this project. It might be that there are sytemmic governance issues within the council that need to be addressed. There are a number of that have come to light in recent weeks that have flagged concerns.

"For example the monthly reports that the council was receiving from the contractors were being summarised and rewritten in a way that made the progress sound much more positive before they were presented to councillors."

"The whole problem has been the lack of transparency from the start."

The cost was a major part of the town's opposition
The cost was a major part of the town's opposition

Cllr Becki Breanau, the leader of the Alliance agreed. She said: "Too many decisions were taken behind closed doors. It's time to open those doors and see what went on."

As well as the financial cost of the Calverley Square project, revealed this week, there is also the opportunity cost of other town projects that have fallen by the wayside while the council concentrated its attention in one area.

The council heard that £3m would now have to be set aside for repairs to other parts of the town's infrastructure.

The Royal Victoria Place car park was said to be "ailing" and in need of urgent repair.

The car park is leased to British Land (who run the shopping centre) but owned by the council which remains responsible for is upkeep. Repairs are costed at £855,000.

The Assembly Hall, which had been allowed to slide because it was due to be replaced by a new theatre, will now need urgent renovation estimated at £180,210.

'Too many decisions were taken behind closed doors. It's time to open those doors and see what went on'

Even the Town Hall itself, which was also due to be replaced by a new Civic Centre, will now need modernisation, estimated to cost £625,540.

The council had decided to mothball 9 and 10 Calverley Terrace, which its owns, because that was to be redeveloped as part of the plan. To bring the building back into use, £211,600 has been set aside.

Likewise the Great Hall Car park which was to have been demolished has received no investment over the past four years. The council now thinks that just to keep it operational until 2025 will cost £850,00.

Meanwhile, the town's other big development site, the old ABC cinema site in the centre of town is still making slow progress.

The latest owner, Elysian Residences, had its amended plans approved last September. They include shops, restaurants, a cinema and 108 homes.

The town has been waiting for something to happen there for 20 years.

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