URBED’s 40th anniversary event in Brighton took place in the conference room of the Jury’s Inn hotel. The large windows on two of the room’s walls looked out onto the roads and buildings that we masterplanned 15 years ago – rendered in bricks and mortar almost as it it were a 1:1 model. The last building was under construction at the time of the event, being built on the site next to the station, which is still known as plot J after our original regulatory plan.
As masterplanners we tend to look back with a degree of envy on John Nash. In the early 1800s he masterplanned (and saw built) much of Brighton for the Prince Regent, as well as large parts of London – this in the days before computers, telephones or even trains. Most modern masterplanners can never hope to have such an impact on our cities. As Rob Cowan tells us, 90% of master plans are never built (he may have made that statistic up but it has the ring of truth). It is therefore unusual, if not unique, for a modern masterplanner to stand within a plan that has been built exactly as originally designed. It is even more extraordinary that this should be the case with URBED’s first ever large scale masterplan. At the time we were naive and assumed that this happened all the time. The Brighton event as part of URBED’s 40th anniversary procession around the country was an opportunity to explore how this remarkable situation had come about.
The New England Quarter is built on the site of the locomotive works and sidings that once stood alongside Brighton Station. By the 1990s the upper part of the site was the station car park while the lower part was a series of yards and second hand car lots. A local developer QED had tried to get planning permission for a Sainsbury’s Supermarket and had been refused, had been to appeal and seen the appeal thrown out. In the process the scheme had stirred up a vociferous and well-organised community campaign under the banner Brighton Urban Design and Development (BUDD). In 1999 BUDD created an alternative scheme for the site drawing on the idea of the Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood that was being promoted by URBED at the time. It was as a result of this that URBED became involved, initially as advisers and then as our first ever masterplan. The community absolutely hated us for it!
The event was addressed by Pam Alexander, former Chief Executive of the South East of England Development Agency and now non-executive director of Crest Nicholson who with Bio-Regional developed one of the buildings within the masterplan. Her main point was that the conditions by which a masterplan such as the New England Quarter are realised no longer really exist. The planning system does not give developers the certainty that they need to invest in projects on this scale. The only people who can take on the risk are a few large developers and house builders who aren’t prepared to commit themselves to eat sleep and breath a scheme in the way that Chris Gilbert has done for the last 15 years on the NEQ. It shouldn’t be this difficult to create great urbanism but unfortunately it is.
Chris Gilbert described how the scheme was made possible by Sainsbury’s. It was they who funded all the work required to bring the scheme forward as well as investing in the new infrastructure. This wouldn’t happen today because supermarkets are not as valuable as they were in the 1990. The scheme is essentially built as it is because Sainsbury’s would have done anything to get their supermarket, put housing in its roof, bury its car park in the basement, indeed build a whole mixed use Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood around the store designed by an unknown and inexperienced masterplanner called URBED.
Chris hadn’t realised quite how inexperienced URBED were. He might have been sceptical about our ideas in the early days, and only gone along with them because of community pressure. However he soon became a convert and ended up developing some of the most radical homes himself and promoting the involvement of BioRegional. The plan was based on the idea of moving New England Street by looping it around the lower part of the site. This create a site for the Supermarket and the surrounding housing that was developed as a first phase by Sainsburys and Barratt Homes. The 40,000sqft store is built into the hillside so that its western side is underground and the central pedestrianised street through Phase 1 runs over its roof. The car park is beneath the store and the service yard is beneath the apartment block to the north such that the supermarket is virtually invisible.
Chris Gilbert explained that once the initial phase was underway, his focus turned to the other six other plots created by the masterplan that were to be brought forward by different developers. A decked car park was provided for the station, a language school acquired a site to build a private college while Jury’s Inn built a hotel. The only hiccup came with the sale of block J next to the station. This had been necessary to provide cash flow, but did mean that he lost control of a crucial site and was as surprised as anyone when the developers, the Beetham Brothers submitted proposals for what would have been Brighton’s tallest building. It was fortunately refused and Chris eventually managed to buy back the site and to promote the development that is now on site, in line with the original masterplan.
Nigel Green also spoke of his experience at coordinating the council’s response to the site. Their response to the refusal of the supermarket and the community campaign was to prepare a planning brief for the site. This however made the council a focus for opposition as much as the developers (and their master planners). The community were by the council what they wanted on the site and came up with several hundred suggestions. However there was little acceptance that the site was in private ownership and that uses needed to be viable and Nigel regretted how bad tempered the discussions became. There was debate about whether the adversarial nature of the process damaged the scheme or caused the developer to look at it differently. Today there remains some opposition although other members of the community accepted that there worse fears hadn’t been realised. There was a sadness that much of the housing is unaffordable to local people although it was good to see that residents had set up a ‘Friends of the Greenway’ group which shows that community spirit is developing.
One of the best parts of the scheme is One Brighton, developed by BioRegional on a triangular. Poona Desai described how the scheme was developed with their architects Fielden Clegg Bradley. The site has allowed them to apply their 10 One Planet living principles in an urban location and they estimate that they have achieved a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a normal scheme. Unfortunately however the biomass CHP plan that had been planned to serve the whole development didn’t happen because the plant was refused planning permission by Brighton Council (despite the local councillor being Green).
A number of people at the event suggested that schemes such as this could never happen again. The planning situation is too uncertain and the risks too great without a strong financial backer such as Sainsburys. This makes you wonder about the masterplan that John Nash saw implemented in Brighton that runs for more than a mile from the Level (just to the east of the New England Quarter) down past the Royal Pavilion and culminating in the Pier. If we are going to build on the lessons of the New England Quarter we need to find a way of masterplanning that doesn’t rely on the deep pockets of a small number of large developers but which can unlock the creativity and enterprise of hundreds of small developers, as Nash’s plan did.