A £90 million council scheme for a new theatre and office complex in Tunbridge Wells has been put on hold after facing a public backlash.
A council meeting on June 24 saw councillors vote to pause decision making on the Calverley Square plans – which include a new theatre and civic centre intended to replace the town hall and Assembly Hall.
The meeting was organised by the Liberal Democrats and the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, set up to oppose the scheme. The alliance had initially called for the scheme to be scrapped before an amendment was passed to explore further options.
Proposals include building a 1,200-seat theatre to replace the Assembly Hall, alongside an office complex for the council and other commercial tenants. The council has said it wants the new theatre to revitalise the town’s arts scene, having an impact similar to that of the Marlowe Theatre in nearby Canterbury.
The Calverley Square project received planning permission last year after years of debate, and an inquiry was held earlier this year as a result of 150 objections submitted during a public consultation on the plans.
It is estimated that £10 million has already been spent developing the scheme, which has a total cost of £90 million.
The project now faces an uncertain future as the cabinet agreed to “stop all new expenditure on the Calverley Square project with immediate effect” and not progress to any further commitments without the involvement of all stakeholders and to consider “all alternative proposals”.
Last year, the Assembly Hall appointed its first in-house producer to develop a new programme for the theatre ahead of its move to the new premises, which had been scheduled to take place in 2021.
At the meeting, council leader Alan McDermott said: “The problem we have is that the existing Assembly Hall Theatre and Town Hall are nearing the end of their usable lives and, as the town continues to grow, we believe that it deserves cultural facilities fit for the 21st century and that would benefit residents, businesses and visitors alike”.
He added he was “disappointed” that consensus around a new development had broken down.
“I have proposed that we pause while we await information on the scheme and we work with other political parties, residents and businesses to understand their concerns and any alternative proposals as to how to proceed.
“What is absolutely clear is that there are no zero-cost options,” McDermott said.