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Borough Councillor for Judd Ward and Kent County Councillor for Tonbridge

River Walk Sale Update

conservative Council loose out on £1.9m because of incompetence

Tonbridge Green Party has always opposed the sale of borough council property without the consent of residents. We believe that a responsible council will have a range of investments and part of those assets should be property based to provide a steady return from tenants and leaseholders. This is the policy which is adopted by almost all councils. Instead, our council has overseen property deals which are costing us a fortune, the last one has undervalued a building by £1.9m.

In 2019 the Leader of the Council announced that it would sell the Teen and Twenty Club and the land next to it at River Lawn for development alongside the property at River Walk which had previously housed the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. We argued for a more holistic approach and advocated incorporating a medical entre as part of a new development on the Angel Centre site to incorporate all the services now provided in a modern energy efficient building. This would have enabled Tonbridge Medical Group to move to modern facilities and enabled the council to benefit from the leasing part of the building to them.

As the details emerged, we learnt that rather than achieving the market price of £1.435m for the former youth club the council would receive only £750,000. The council in that year had a budget deficit of £1.6m yet was selling prime real estate at half price. We also learnt that the NHS would pay almost twice as much as it had been paying to support the three surgeries the medical centre would replace.

The man who oversaw this deal was Cllr Martin Coffin the deputy leader of TMBC. After a long campaign by Keep River Lawn Green, three key figures in the protest were elected to the borough council in 2019. Our Green Party Councillors April Cark and Mark Hood spoke against proposals for development of the open space at every opportunity and refused to support any budget which included the sale.

The Barden Residents Association applied for Village Green Status and lost their case on a legal technicality. All seemed lost, despite being granted Rights of Way status for the footpaths which criss-crossed the site it seemed the nine mature trees would be lost under a sea of concrete.

Part of our campaign also focussed on 1-4 River Walk and we continued to campaign to have that building repurposed as a restaurant or riverside bar, we knew that neighbouring Sevenoaks District Council successfully leased the Restoration Pub to Shepherd Neame and we thought that this was a better option than selling to a developer who would dictate the style of architecture and what happened here next.  There would even be room on the adjacent car park for a small block of apartments.

We knew from previous experience that the council lacked the competence to deal with the sale of a property in a key location and get the optimum price. In the end the seismic shock of both Kent County Council seats being won by Green candidates standing on a platform of saving River Lawn and replacing the Angel Centre sent shockwaves through the Conservative Association and they replaced the Leader of the Council with a younger model. In order to limit the damage inflicted by a decade of ignoring residents wishes one of the first acts of the new leader was to take River Lawn off the market, people power had won!  

One of the key reasons the Green Party opposes the general principle of selling property for development to a third party is that they make the lion’s share of the profit and benefit from ongoing income if the properties are leased. The council by contrast gets a one off sum which, bizarrely, it has spent on property investment products based elsewhere in the UK. We are proud of our town and our money should be invested in our own community.

When the new Leader arrived, we asked him to cancel the sale at River Walk as we thought it was a poor commercial decision. We were shocked when we found out that the property was sold to River Walk House Ltd for only £1.515m as we believed it had been undervalued. We have now discovered that the property has now been sold to Sorbon Developments for £3,450,000 which confirms our initial concerns.

We believe the handling of the council’s property assets has been incompetent and we hope that residents will acknowledge this and show the Conservative administration the door in May so that we can begin rebuilding our council’s finances in a sustainable manner. We believe another approach is required which includes self-development of our existing property and the creation of a housing company.

Cllr Mark Hood commented “If these properties were the private property of the councillors who have been handling their sale it is inconceivable that they would have been disposed of in in this way and indeed there is an obligation on the council to chieve the best possible price for our property if it sells them, so what has happened here”.