SEAM Response To TWBC Planning Officers Report

RESPONSE FROM SEAM (Southborough Environmental Action Movement) TO TWBC PLANNING REPORT ON 16/06081/HYBRID

Having read Tuesday’s report from TWBC Planning Officers to the TWBC Planning Committee, we have found serious errors in the “facts” contained in that report which would invalidate the conclusion of the TWBC Planning Officers to recommend approval of the application.  We will discuss the issues in detail before the Committee on Wednesday next week, but we are making you all aware now of some of the errors in this submission.

A: ERRORS OF FACT

(1)  “Iconic Building?”

Para 7.69 written by the TWBC Urban Design Officer says: “It is vitally important to create a sense of place and an identity for Southborough – a design of its time, iconic and stimulating.”  The planning officers report contains no evidence that an “iconic” design has been achieved. And the idea that a building, which around 200 members of the public in their comments to planning have argued is wrong in mass, design and shape, can be made “iconic” simply by late variations to the cladding materials - as suggested by the TWBC planning officers - is clearly false. 

The evidence provided in public comments from two independent architectural experts make it clear that the proposed design is a standard functional box of no architectural design merit.  Objectors include:
(a) Michael Lees of the Tunbridge Wells architectural practice ARC-ML that specialises in masterplanning with clients from Berlin to Riga to London who says: “The poor quality design that has been submitted should not have got this far…The plan form of the proposed Hub building is gratuitous and gives form to “blocks” and a circular element which do nothing to give an important sense of place and enclosure to the associated public space around the building. Good design does not rely on gimmickry of this type.”
(b) Martin Jameson of London’s Serie architects with (clients in Singapore etc) and lecturer at the Architectural Association in London: “The design is weak. Clumsy massing — two boxes connected by a disc….Architects are now expected to work with existing buildings when taking on public work”.

(2) Southborough’s Character

Para 10.57 of the planning officers’ report contains a fundamental error which underlies much of the reasoning in the report. It says that the Hub building will create a ‘sense of place within an area that currently lacks any coherent townscape character’. Southborough town centre already has a distinctive local character.  The buildings are largely brick built and Victorian and Edwardian.  This character is recognised in para 4.5.4 of the TWBC Local Plan which specifically protects the commercial part of London Road because of features of architectural interest which contribute to the character of the local area.   

(3) State of Royal Victoria Hall (RVH)

The planning officers’ appraisal states at 10.21 that the applicant has confirmed various issues including the following:
- Royal Victoria Hall has suffered “drains and walls collapsing”
- Various surveys highlighted various problems
- The current building is not flexible
- The seating is screwed down
- The building does not meet fire regulations
These 5 assertions are all incorrect.  

No walls of the RVH have collapsed. Southborough Town Council (STC), who own the RVH, have supplied to Cllr Nick Blackwell the Boundary Wall condition report by the company BDR dated 17 April 2013. This clearly shows it is only the boundary wall and not any structural wall of the RVH that has any issues.  The Royal Victoria Hall is generally agreed to be structurally sound and recent visitors all say it is in “remarkably good condition”. 

According to Cllr Nick Blackwell, the issue with the drains concerns the plumbing of the 1970s toilets in the rebuilt front of the building, which is not structurally part of the main RVH hall.  The drain issues will require some investment, but they have not “collapsed”.  

The RVH was completely rewired five years ago, as explained in 2011 STC Annual Town Meeting Finance and General purposes committee (F&G) report, written by Cllr Peter Oakford who said:  “The Victoria Theatre remains one of your council’s key focus areas and is an asset of our town that continues to thrive.  The restoration has continued throughout the year with the re-wire and electrical work now completed at a cost of approximately £70,000, which was funded from reserves. The re-wire has designed to “future proof” the electrical requirements of the hall ensuring it will be ready for new equipment such as a PA and sound system, lighting etc.”
 
Mr Oakford went on to state in 2011: “A full fire safety audit has been completed; a new fire alarm installed and work is due to start replacing some of the ceilings in the back-up areas with fire proof materials.  Some minor building works to the exterior of the building have been highlighted which will be completed this year.”

Cllr Nick Blackwell, who has been a member of the F&G committee on STC for the past two years, states that there has been no survey since 2011 that has identified any further essential works on the RVH demanding a substantial outlay. 

The current RVH building has been used for dances, meetings and dinners over the past 116 years and so is clearly flexible.  The seating in place since the 1970s (which was partially screwed down) has already been removed as can be seen in recent photographs. The health and safety inspector, David Menzies issued a risk assessment report, approving the new RVH movable seats in November 2014 and in his summary he says “this present arrangement allows STC to clearly demonstrate that they have eliminated the hazard associated with the use of the original folding seats by young children.” The hall was in use with these new seats for the December 2014 pantomime and fully insured with a small increase in premiums.

The building does still meet fire regulations. According to Cllr Blackwell, the RVH was passed by Jeffrey Lloyd of the Kent Fire and Rescue Service in June 2013.

(4) Views of Southborough Residents

Para 10.22 states that : “the local population voted overwhelmingly at the November 2015-January 2016 consultation exercise in favour of a new build”.

This is incorrect.  The consultation in November 2015 offered just two design options:
(a) demolish the RVH (with outline plan worked up)
(b) Part demolish the RVH, including removing the balcony and cutting the seating capacity (with outline plan worked up)
(c) Unspecified other (no plan)
The people who wanted to retain a refurbished RVH in tact were not given that as an explicit option and so mainly felt they had been ignored and did not participate. The option to refurbish the RVH had been the most popular single option in the previous consultations.

An expert in consultations all over the world, Ian Gavin, of Water Aid gave evidence on the planning portal that this November 2015 exercise was a “manipulated consultation”.  Mr Gavin also highlights there were only 369 responses from the whole of Southborough and Tunbridge Wells and says this: “represents about 3% of the population or 4.5% of those on the electoral register. This pitiful response…is in itself clear evidence of a failed process.”

In addition this wasn’t a “vote” of any sort.  It was an event where supporters of the current scheme (Jonathan White and pro-proposal STC members) told any visitors coming through the door that “the better scheme was to completely demolish the RVH”.  There was no alternative view available for consultation at the event. In some ways, it was similar in nature to the petition whereby dozens supporters of the RVH went round “door to door” earlier in 2015 with one opinion (saving the Hall) and asked people to sign up.  

But there is one big difference. At the official consultation, only 214 people (that is 58 % out of just 369 respondents) supported the RVH complete demolition “new build” option. Focussing on the residents of Southborough and High Brooms, as few as 182 people supported demolition (that is 63% of 289 STC residents). On the other hand, 3,000 people from Southborough and High Brooms signed the petition supporting keeping the RVH open in 2015. Ten times more people responded to the petition in 2015 than the consultation.  The online petition in the past week launched by SEAM has made it clear that public views haven’t changed in the past year.

No “vote” took place as claimed in the planning officers’ documents.  That would require a town wide referendum with campaign material from all sides sent for residents to consider, something that sadly hasn’t happened.

(5) Facilities for Soccer and other recreation on Ridgewaye Fields

The planning document concludes at Para 10.93:  “The new sports pavilion, improvements to the playing pitch levels in parts of the site to increase of the playable area of the adjacent playing fields will increase the playing capacity and enhance the facilities offered here.”

This is factually incorrect in many respects including:
(a) The new sports pavilion will not “enhance facilities” and is not an improvement on the current pavillion.  According to the statement to the “Southborough News” online blog on 21st October by Tunbridge Wells Youth Football Club secretary Colin Niccolls, the new pavilion does not meet FA standards and “is worse in terms of space by a long way” than their current building hired from KCC next to the Ridgewaye fields.

(b) “Improvements to the playing pitch levels” to the North East of the Ridgewaye would require a large wall to be built to retain soil and a safety fence built above it, obscuring light to houses along the Ridgewaye Lane.  Planning permission would be required, so this cannot be treated as a definite event.

(c)  The facilities are not “enhanced” if the total playing area of already overcrowded fields is reduced by 20 per cent.  The area proposed for marking out as replacement pitches on the north of the fields is currently used as an amenity for dog walkers, joggers and footballers warming up.  If this is removed, there will be more overcrowding on the remaining space which may make the pitches more muddy and less usable for any recreational activity.

(B) RELEVANCE TO PLANNING POLICIES

The Planning Report disregards or misapplies a number of Local Plan or NPPF policies, partly because of the factual errors noted above.  Given the lack of benefits of a landmark iconic building (as it isn’t), TWBC Planning Officers should review again their policies. In particular:  

(1) Chapter 4 of the Tunbridge Wells Borough Local Plan (Environment)
Introduction:
It is clear from Para 4.1 that the aim of the plan is to ensure that the unique character and appearance of the Borough is maintained and enhanced for future generations. Para 4.6 says that control of external appearance is of great importance in this environmentally sensitive area and para 4.8 says that all proposals will be considered in relation to their setting. 

Policy EN1:
This requires “the design of the proposal, including external appearance, roofscape materials and landscaping, to respect the context of the site”.  The context of the site is that Southborough is a largely Victorian/Edwardian town in scale and form. Para 4.14 stresses the need for high quality design. Para 4.15 says that a ‘landmark’ building may sometimes be taller or bulkier than existing development, but it makes no exception to the principle that building styles and materials should respect the local context.

EN1 also says that the proposal should not result in the loss of significant buildings. In this case, it is hard to see how the demolition of the Royal Victoria Hall can be justified, as it is a non-designated Heritage Asset.

Policy EN8
This requires the minimum amount of lighting necessary. This aspect will need to be considered in conjunction with the rules on control of advertisements, as the proposals place a strong emphasis on ‘signage’. It hard to understand why the designers seem to regard coloured lighting and advertisements as desirable from a planning point of view.

(2)  New Site Allocations Local Plan

The EN1 and EN8 policies have recently been expressly saved by Appendix 1 of the new Site Allocations Local Plan.  They are not overridden by Policy AL/SO2.  Para 3.75 of the Site Allocations Local Plan provides that development within the allocated sites must still comply with all relevant national and local policies.

Para 10.19 of the report refers to the new SALP Policy AL/S02, which requires all efforts to consider retaining the RVH.  As explained elsewhere, the demolition of the RVH is a choice made by councillors who have a preference for a new modern building.  It is not something that has been forced upon them by the condition of the building.  Therefore the planning officers are wrong to accept in 10.23 that “the policy requirement for the applicant to explore opportunities to retain and improve the Royal Victoria Hall has been complied with and the reasons why this option has not been pursued have been clearly explained”.

(3) National Planning Policy Framework

Turning to the NPPF, para 63 gives great weight to outstanding designs which help to raise the standard of design more generally in the area.  As noted above, the Hub design is poor. Para 64 says that permission should be refused for poor design.  

Para 58 emphasises the importance of responding to local character and history and reflecting the identity of local surroundings and materials (while not discouraging appropriate innovation).  Para 61 requires authorities to address the integration of new development into the natural, built and historic environment. The Planning Report denies Southborough its distinctive historic character and fails to address this integration in any meaningful way.   

Part 12 of the NPPF specifically discusses conserving and enhancing the historic environment.
Para 126: requires local planning authorities to recognise that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance. 
Para 128 says that an applicant should be required to describe the significance of any heritage assets affected, including any contribution made by their setting. 
Para 131 of the NPPF also states:
In determining planning applications, local planning authorities should take account of:
the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of heritage assets and putting them to viable uses consistent with their conservation;
the positive contribution that conservation of heritage assets can make to sustainable communities including their economic vitality; and
the desirability of new development making a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness.
 No real weight appears to have been given to these considerations in the Report.


(C) CONCLUSION

Having understood that the information that underlies the planning recommendation is inaccurate, we trust that the planning officers will alter their recommendation to refusal.  Otherwise their decision will be at odds with planning law and so open to judicial review.

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