“2015 was, in anyone’s books, a good year for Tunbridge Wells.
A survey based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews shows that 95 per cent of people think it is a great place to live and three quarters of people think the Council runs things well and provides value for money.
In other surveys, the annual ‘Halifax Quality of Life Survey’ ranks Tunbridge Wells the second best place to live in Kent (just one place behind Sevenoaks) and we have been rated the sixth best place to raise kids and the 37th most vibrant place in the whole country. We also continue to enjoy the lowest rates of crime in Kent, the lowest levels of unemployment and the highest skills levels.
Economically, we continue to grow strongly with the highest proportion of people employed in the knowledge economy in the county (23.4 per cent compared with a Kent average of 15 per cent). We also determined the third highest number of planning applications in the county with a number of significant developments in the pipeline (including North Farm, Sherwood and Royal Victoria Place). Research we commissioned earlier in the year shows that Tunbridge Wells has the highest proportion of business start-ups in Kent and the strongest business survival rates and that (along with North Kent) we have the best prospect for securing economic growth over the next 20 years. This blows away perceptions that Tunbridge Wells is ‘trapped in aspic’ showing instead that we are very much ‘open for business’.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story though, 2015 has seen work on improving access into North Farm completed and work on the dualling of the A21 (the largest road scheme in the county) well underway. A £2.5m Heritage Lottery Fund improvement scheme in Grosvenor and Hilbert has been completed, the Assembly Hall theatre has been transformed by a £1.5m facelift and, in the last few weeks of the year, we heard that the Council has received the most welcome news that we have been awarded over £4m from the HLF towards a £12m Cultural and Learning Hub to extend and integrate the Library, Museum, Art Gallery and Adult Education Centre reinforcing the Royal Tunbridge Wells’ status as the cultural capital of the Kent and Sussex Weald and bring additional visitors into the town. We have also seen a wholesale upgrade of the St John’s Leisure Centre to bring it into the 21st Century.
Whilst we have also been hit hard by reductions to our funding from government (our grant halved in the last Parliament, will fall by another 50 per cent next year and disappear altogether thereafter), we have been incredibly entrepreneurial in managing the challenges. We have been very impressed with the way in which staff have risen to the challenge, our move to embrace digital technology and the efforts that have been made to raise money and reduce costs through making better use of the Council's property assets (to date, this work is likely to lead to in excess of £14m in capital receipts as well as around £500k savings per annum in increased income or reduced maintenance costs as well as delivering new homes - many of them affordable).
Looking forward, we are convinced that 2016 is going to be an even better year which should see a number of key projects delivered. These include:
§ The completion of the A21 dualling scheme that will dramatically reduce delays and improve connectivity to London;
§ Work to submit a Stage 2 HLF bid to finalise the funding for the Cultural and Learning Hub;
§ Detailed work to assess the feasibility of providing a new theatre on the Great Hall site and to relocate the Council into new offices big enough to sub-let to a major local employer – providing us with an income and allowing us to look at putting the Town Hall site to better economic use.
§ The opening of a ‘Creative Hub’ on Monson Road providing space for the huge range of creative and digital businesses in the Borough to work and network;
§ Work to complete new shops, homes and car parking spaces on John Street and business start-up units on North Farm;
§ Work starting or continuing on a range of significant developments including Royal Victoria Place, Knights Wood, Union House, the Kent and Sussex site, Eridge Road (an Aldi supermarket) and Paddock Wood;
§ Work to deliver new community centres in Cranbrook, Paddock Wood and Southborough.
We will also be looking at how we can expand and improve sporting facilities across the Borough and whether or not we can deliver a higher education facility or campus in the Borough to build on the excellent education that our primary and secondary schools deliver.
As well as all these projects, the Council delivers an exceptionally wide range of services to a very high standard and we never, ever take this for granted. Whenever either of us speak to residents, businesses, voluntary or community organisations or special interest groups (or just people we know in the Borough) we are always bowled over by the esteem in which the Council is held – whether that is delivering outward-facing services, back-office services or even services where it is impossible to please everyone (such as enforcement or parking).
We know that the past few years have not been easy – we have seen staff numbers reduce and we have had to adapt to work in new ways to meet the financial challenges we are facing – digitally and in partnership with other councils. However, we have been unbelievably impressed (and grateful) for the way in which you have adapted and risen to the challenges. We cannot pretend that the next few years are going to be any easier but we just thought it was important to take the opportunity presented by the New Year to thank you for the passion, dedication and ingenuity that you display on a daily basis delivering services and projects for the residents and businesses of Tunbridge Wells.
We look forward to working with you in 2016!”