04.05.01 - The Public Inquiry - Telephone House, Tunbridge Wells - Speech of Archie Norman, MP

Evidence to Public Inquiry on Redevelopment of Telephone House, Tunbridge Wells

First I would like to thank the Inspector and staff of the Inquiry for this opportunity to say a few words on the proposed development.

In doing so I am speaking not as an expert on planning matters but as the local Member of Parliament reflecting the views and feelings of many local people who have asked for my support on a development which will have a formative impact on their neighbourhood about which they are passionately concerned.

First let me say a few words about the broader context: people in Tunbridge Wells are not opposed to development in the town. Indeed they would welcome a sympathetic redevelopment of Telephone House. And as general rule support the idea of establishing new residential accommodation in the heart of the town centre.

However Tunbridge Wells is a town that has in the past suffered from over development in the wrong areas and unsympathetic building. As a result the infrastructure, particularly roads are often congested and poorly designed for the buildings they now accommodate. The town centre especially is very congested and there is already an almost unsolvable problem of excess traffic and lack of car parking space.

It is also a town with a strong sense of identity and a pattern of mixed Victorian and latter day architecture which forms a generally pleasing low level friendly pattern. There have been one or tow larger scale modern intrusions but people are keen that the architectural mistakes of the past should not be repeated.

As a result this planning application has probably given rise to more public dissent and anxiety than any other I have experienced in my four years as Member of Parliament. There is precious little support for it amongst local people - I have found none.
I know that as the Inquiry nears its conclusion the arguments will have been exhaustively explored. But my point is that there are hundreds of people actively opposed to a development that need not have been contentious. The strength of feeling is considerable and it behooves the Inquiry to understand why that is the case.

In my judgment the concerns expressed by residents about the density of the development and loss of amenity including light and tress are not considerations that can be lightly dismissed. Whilst it can be argued that they do not conflict individually with Planning Guidance and are not in themselves grounds for refusal they contribute to the overall negative impact of a building which is out of scale and context with the local environment in a conservation area.

People locally are right to be concerned about the access from York Road the safety and the likelihood of extra burden on local parking facilities which are already overstrained.

But the fundamental concern that I have to tell the Inquiry is shared by people all across Tunbridge Wells and not just in the immediate neighbourhood concerns the overall design, height and massing of the building.
My constituents are right in saying that this is a very important site for the town. It is possibly one of the last major redevelopment opportunities in the town centre and in the midst of the Conservation Area. Any concerned developer should be seeking to ensure that such a unique opportunity was an enhancement to the town and its architecture.

Instead we have a building which as the Inquiry has heard is designed with no relationship to the neighbouring buildings and no sense of architectural harmony. It is out of scale both in width and in height. It will detract from the appearance of neighouring buildings which although they may not be of unique merit in there own right form part of the pattern of low level small scale development characteristic of the town and intrinsic to the character of the Conservation Area.

The window design and horizontal pattern of development is clearly foreign to the Conservation Area and would be very unusual in the broader Tunbridge Wells townscape.

Its scale and aggressively positioned frontage on York Road is clearly driven by the need to maximise density rather than a concern to fit in with the local pattern of development.

These points have already been put to the Inquiry and I am aware that the developers and its representatives have adopted a dismissive attitude towards them.

My role however is to stress that local people find this dismissive attitude hard to understand.
It may be possible to adopt a forensic attitude to individual aspects of the objections and to question whether they are sufficient grounds for refusal in their own right. The case however that has been put rests on the belief that the aggregate impact of the building is unfriendly out of keeping and excessive in scale to the neighbourhood.

And that brings me to my last point. I believe that the many local people who have participated in this objection are right to be concerned. Whatever the individual merits of their points their interest in the future of this unique site is to be applauded not dismissed. They are not simply opposed to development - they want to see the right development for their area. And it is a sadness that the developer and its representatives have made so little effort to consult locally and reflect local concerns in their approach.

Their approach has been unfeeling, uncompromising and legalistic. The development is wrong for the area and gratuitously offensive to local people in small says as well as in totality. And it should be rejected.

Could the Planning Inspector's appeal decisions have been challenged ?

The support of Archie Norman, MP for Tunbridge Wells
in connection with the Telephone House development