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Brighton ‘has turned a corner’

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After years of projects failing to break ground, Tom Ravenscroft finds a council taking initiative and optimism in the sea air for Brighton and Hove

The last time Brighton and Hove appeared on the architectural radar was when Frank Gehry’s radical waterfront towers were scrapped in 2008. Earlier this month, almost five years to the day after the mixed-use scheme dubbed ‘tin can alley’ was abandoned, the council issued a new call for partners to develop the site.

Described by Cathedral Group’s Martyn Evans as a ‘scheme that hangs over all developers in Brighton’, the Gehry tower is just one of a raft of recent high-profile schemes that have failed to come to fruition in the city. Wilkinson Eyre’s Brighton Marina project stalled, Make’s redevelopment of the Brighton Centre failed to materialise (AJ 27.07.09), LCE Architects’ Hove Station (AJ 06.07.12) went on hold and Marks Barfield’s i360 lost its funding. Meanwhile the long-awaited Brighton International Arena on the Black Rock site was finally abandoned and this summer AHMM’s Anston House redevelopment failed to win planning.

Although some of these projects were victims of the recession, long before 2008 the city had a reputation as a hard place to get things built. This is partly due to its physical constraints.

As Lap Chan, director at Brighton-based Morgan Carn Partnership Architects says, ‘There is a lack of land because of the historic environment and the fact that the city is bounded by the sea and the Downs’. However, many architects including Chan point to a ‘very risk adverse’ council as holding back architecture in the city.

People ‘misconstrue an interesting city for interesting architecture’, says University of Brighton lecturer Gemma Barton. Barton describes the city’s relationship with London as ‘like having a twin’. She adds: ‘It’s great to have the company, but you are in constant competition’.

Construction in the last boom period was about short-term profit

Manser Medal winner Carl Turner, a former lecturer at the University of Brighton, explains further: ‘Construction in the city over the last boom period was developer driven and was about short-term profit based on inflated house prices, with London commuters distorting the local market.

‘In general very little in the way of memorable places or buildings have been created: I struggle to name any and I know the city well.’

Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates who designed the Jubilee Library (AJ 13.10.2005), one of the few recent stand-out pieces of architecture in the city, says that: ‘Like Edinburgh, Brighton is known to be a difficult place to getting planning, it has a tremendous heritage and people quite rightly have high demands’.

Bennetts Associates and LCE Architects' Jubilee Library is one of the few recent stand out buildings

Source: Peter Cook/View

Bennetts Associates and LCE Architects’ Jubilee Library is one of the few recent stand out buildings

However, the protection of Brighton’s historic fabric may be to the detriment of new high-quality architecture in the city. ‘Buildings like The Pavilion, Embassy Court, Saltdean Lido and the Regency terraces are the gems in the city and they were innovative in their time,’ says architectural photographer Jim Stephenson. ‘When I was working in practice my feeling was that good architecture was hamstrung by an ineffective planning system and a series of overzealous neighbourhood groups.’

This is a sentiment shared by many architects working in the city. Olli Blair, director of Hove-based ABIR Architects, believes that: ‘Brighton has become a conservative place, where no one wants to see anything interesting built.’ He puts the blame squarely on the council saying that there is ‘clearly something broken with the planning system’.

There is a feeling that development in the city is a highly politicised process. ‘There is a good deal of nimbyism in Brighton and Hove. While planning committees are supposed to be non-political, they would only be human to be influenced by it, especially in a minority administration where in some wards every vote counts,’ says LCE Architects director Nick Lomax.

He explains: ‘Brighton and Hove must be unique in that the last three administrations have been formed from different parties, consecutively Labour, Conservative and Greens. In this situation every decision has political ramifications.’

Yet Caroline Stephens, vice chair of RIBA Sussex, points to improvement in the city: ‘A few years ago the situation was dire, architects’ livelihoods and businesses were being directly affected by the slow and arduous planning department. Now we are seeing a faster process and a tentative dialogue with an informal architects advisory panel.’

Duncan Baker Brown, a director of Sussex-based BBM Sustainable Design, feels that the planners have struggled at the coalface, but believes this is improving.

The city hasn’t quite understood how to procure good design

He says: ‘They are enlightened at the top, but it appears that the planning department has been stretched. The city hasn’t quite understood how to procure good design, but I think this is starting to change.’

Indeed, in the words of Paul Zara, director of Conran & Partners, Brighton ‘has turned a corner’.

He explains: ‘Over the past five years when a scheme got planning people didn’t think it would happen, but now people believe that things will actually happen’.

This positive outlook is shared by Martin Randall, head of Planning & Public Protection, Brighton & Hove City Council, who points to ‘a series of high-profile development projects in the city and more in the pipeline that illustrate a real confidence by investors in Brighton and Hove’.

‘Good examples include [Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’] flagship One Brighton scheme and a series of successful developments that have collectively delivered the wholesale redevelopment of the New England Quarter’, he says. One scheme that the council is very publicly backing and has offered support through prudential borrowing is Marks Barfield’s i360.

After considering locations including Manchester, Oxford, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the practice chose to build the ‘son of the London Eye’: an observation pod that rises to 141m opposite the burnt out West Pier. ‘A lot of people complain about planning in Brighton, but our experience has been very good,’ says David Marks. ‘Having a robust planning process in place is good for a city, and if you follow the procedures then planning is a necessary hurdle’.

Marks Barfield's i360 observation pod opposite West Pier

Marks Barfield’s i360 observation pod opposite West Pier

Although the i360 was put on hiatus during the global financial crisis when funding was pulled from the project Marks is ‘confident it will go ahead’. Work has started on site and the practice, which is also the visitor attraction’s developer, with the council’s backing are in a process of putting together a revised funding package. ‘The future of Brighton is looking pretty good. We are investing a lot of money in the city and think that it will pay off,’ he says.

The future of the West Pier itself is still unsure. The West Pier Trust that owns the ruin, which burnt down in 2003, as well as the i360 site, intend to release a brief for development in the new year.

Marks’ enthusiasm for the city is shared by Cathedral Group, which has just submitted a planning application for a £100 million development in the former municipal market on Circus Street. John McAslan + Partners’ proposal for this long-term unused site went into hibernation during the crash, but Evans is confident the revived mixed-use scheme designed by Shedkm will actually happen. ‘Brighton is a city that knows what it wants. For us developers, this is the best thing as we need to know where we stand and we know where we stand,’ he says.

Shedkm's Circus Street development for Cathedral Group is in planning

Shedkm’s Circus Street development for Cathedral Group is in planning

Although Evans believes that ‘large developments are always politically sensitive’, Cathedral Group see potential in the city. He believes that developers will be looking for more work: ‘We definitely see opportunities for future schemes in Brighton and we are focusing a lot of attention on the city.’

Indeed, Cathedral Group was one of many developers present at the King Alfred replacement developer day held earlier this month. Although the Circus Street and i360 projects have been reborn, and many of the city’s other long-term empty sites are being seriously revisited, it is this ill-fated site that still hangs over the city.

If the council can procure a high-quality piece of architecture for this site then maybe development in Brighton can finally break out of the shadow of Gehry’s towers.

The fate of Brighton’s high-profile schemes

Brighton mapClick on the image to enlarge

Source: Groundsure

  1. Jubilee Library, Bennetts Associates and LCE Architects (complete)
  2. One Brighton, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (complete)
  3. Circus Street, Shedkm (in planning)
  4. i360, Marks Barfield (on hold)
  5. Brighton Marina, Wilkinson Eyre (uncertain)
  6. Preston Road, AHMM (on hold)
  7. Hove Station, LCE Architects (on hold)
  8. King Alfred, Gehry Partners (abandoned)
  9. Brighton Centre, Make (abandoned)
  10. Black Rock, Brighton International Arena (abandoned)


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Readers' comments (1)

  • saveHOVE is one of the amenity voices in Brighton & Hove. The article refers to Brighton in error, might I add. It is the city of Brighton & Hove.

    Jim Stephenson speaks of "overzealous neighbourhood groups" and "ineffective planning". He is wrong on both counts. Or does he disvalue the local knowledge base and discount it?

    This article reads like a moaning minnies cluckfest. Get over yourselves, I say! Only offer good work, not expedient, low cost, low quality visual noise that would be hell to look at and hell to live in. And ensure your planning agent is not cutting the garment too skimpy.

    Planning officers and responding groups and residents notice when information is withheld or wrong. And too many developers play a game of pushing as many awkward questions as possible into the Conditions of Planning list. A good project that is worth builiding should not inspire this kind of chicanery.

    Finally, why does The West Pier Trust NEED to produce a development brief to be unveiled in the new year, if indeed Marks Barfield's i360 overhyped, overexpensive, highly derivative and Blackpoolesque i360 doughnut on a pole is going ahead in the fullness of time? It has planning consent, and is deemed to have begun on the back of a bit of seabed clearance and phaffing about. Why does The West Pier Trust need a development brief NOW? Hmmmm? Bit of a grenade nestling unheralded in the middle of this article if ever I have seen one!

    Nick Lomax would tell you that saveHOVE supported relocation of the Hove retail/leisure focus to the Hove Station area which was back-burnered last year. It was overambitious but going in the right direction for some of us.

    And saveHOVE supported redevelopment of the Sackville Trading Estate which escaped being listed in the article. It has planning consent, renewed this year by P2 (formerly Parkridge) and more land was added this year to the holding to enlarge the area to be redeveloped near Hove Station.

    The financial climate sobered everyone up and hindsight means many are very glad indeed that the Frank Gehry/Piers Gough horror did not go ahead at King Alfred.

    RIBA acknowledges that there are space and light problems in development and it is the developers you need to pinion and go after, not the planning system, not the neighbourhood voices and amenity societies. It is THEY who need to be brought to heel and sorted.

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