Solace Blog

Place-shaping

By William Benson, Chief Executive of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council

I had a bit of an awkward moment at one of our annual staff conventions earlier this year when a speaker asked the audience to tell them the Council’s vision?’ There was silence as people looked at their shoes – no-one could remember it!

Our Vision is set out in our Five-Year Plan and it is: “To encourage investment and sustainable growth, and to enhance quality of life for all.” As you’ve probably noticed, it’s a bit wordy and not very memorable. 

Part of the difficulty in setting a vision for a local council is that we do such a huge range of things it is difficult to draft something that means something to everyone without it being bland. We also need to ensure that it is owned equally by politicians and staff and that it doesn’t jar with our daily reality of having to save money and think carefully about what services we deliver.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and I’ve been influenced by a few things.

The first is Sir Michael Lyons’ report which essentially boiled the role of local government down to one word (or phrase) – ‘place-shaping’. The Leader and I are very clear that this is what we are all about and we have set this out as being the first half of our new, 6-word vision – ‘shaping the Borough’.

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council is doing some incredible things in terms of place-shaping. In the past month we have received Heritage Lottery Fund approval for a £13m project to integrate and extend our museum, library, art gallery and adult education centre. We are working with the county council to ensure that it is not just a single building but a single, integrated service that will inspire, engage and educate local residents, schools and visitors.

We have also now received planning permission and appointed contractors to build a £90m scheme including a new 1,200 seat theatre built in the heart of the town together with new offices, underground car parking and a new public square. We are also investing in sports and community facilities and the public realm. This investment in culture and leisure is being matched by private sector investment including a £100m acquisition of the town’s shopping centre from British Land. Investors are very clear that they see culture as a proxy for the vitality of the town, the strength of its catchment and our reputation as a destination. With the ability to retain business rate growth, for the first time, we have the prospect of a ‘virtuous circle’ allowing us to benefit from local investment to make the town and wider borough more attractive to visitors and businesses.

This isn’t always easy: there is some heart-felt local opposition to the new theatre on grounds of it overshadowing a local park, impacting on near neighbours or requiring borrowing to finance but it is important to think long-term. This was brought home to me by a brochure produced by a local housebuilder who is developing a former hospital site in the centre of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Their brochure sets out the key things that make the town attractive – the shopping centre, parks, the theatre, the cricket ground (which hosts county-level cricket), the Common and the Pantiles. It struck me that each and every one of these amenities was either funded or built by the Council (or its predecessor bodies). This illustrates our role in ‘shaping the Borough’ and making it an attractive place to live, work and visit.

 

However, our role in place-shaping goes beyond big one-off projects. Maybe only a couple of dozen of our staff are directly involved in delivering or project managing them; the rest of our staff make a difference to the lives of thousands of people each year – both through direct service delivery or through supporting those on the front line. What I love about local government is that staff both care passionately about what they do and are thoroughly engaged with local communities. Examples over just the past few weeks include the first anniversary of our local lottery that has exceeded all expectations and is raising over £40k per annum for good causes, the purchase and refurbishment of a local sheltered housing scheme to ensure that we can cater for homeless families within the Borough, our Crematorium introducing a number of memorial schemes that have benefitted the bereaved and increased income and work around the town and council to prepare for ‘Britain in Bloom’. When I talk to staff, this is what really inspires them – the ability to make a difference. We’ve therefore changed our vision statement from the rather wordy statement above to the more simple (and memorable) ‘shaping the Borough, making a difference’ which I think succinctly captures our role.