A controversial Nicholas Hare theatre project has been rejected by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council after cost projections soared
The £108 million Calverley Square project included a 1,200-seat theatre, council offices and underground car park.
In September the AJ reported that the cost of the scheme had increased by £18 million in 18 months before a brick had been laid.
At an Extraordinary Full Council meeting last week (8 October), members voted by a margin of 27 to 12 to reject the project. Another motion to support the principle of providing a theatre was also rejected by an overwhelming margin.
Allies and Morrison had secured planning consent for the scheme in May 2018 but shortly afterwards Nicholas Hare became subcontractors to Mace, the council’s appointed design and build contractor. At about the same time the Conservative-run council approved compulsory purchase of the town-centre site, which is currently occupied by a car park and dental surgery plus a grassed area.
Cost consultant Aecom identified a budget of £108 million following the completion of RIBA Stage 4 technical designs, up from £90 million at the end of 2017 when RIBA Stage 3 detailed design was complete.
Officers recommended approval of the budget increase, saying the scheme remained affordable and was preferable to alternative options, such as refurbishing the existing facilities. Supporters of the scheme said it would generate an additional £1.76 billion for the town’s economy over the next 50 years.
But councillors voted to block the scheme, with one Conservative councillor describing it as ‘a potential vampire on the neck of the finances of Tunbridge Wells for decades to come,’ according to the BBC.
Council leader Alan McDermott said: ’I am very disappointed that a project that was initiated with cross party support four years ago has fallen at the final hurdle. The scheme was strongly supported by many including local businesses who would have benefited from increased footfall and spend in the town.’
Members have now asked the council’s cross-party working group to continue looking at options for the four key sites owned by the Council: the Town Hall, Assembly Hall Theatre, Mount Pleasant Car Park and Great Hall Car Park. The working group will report to Full Council on 18 December 2019.
Opposition Labour councillor Hugo Pound has previously called for the scheme to be halted in favour of refurbishing the existing town hall and Assembly Hall Theatre, which could be sold under the current plans. In September Pound suggested there should be a design contest for the refurbishment, saying it would ‘generate more innovative, imaginative, culturally, socially, environmentally and economically viable alternatives.’
Nicholas Hare has been approached for a response. Mace declined to comment.