Quilts and Conservation

Argus title : We must question planners

Kingsbury Road is one of my favourite streets in Brighton. Over the years, I must have walked down it many hundreds of times, across Viaduct Road past the immaculate trees and lawn of Rose Hill Court and down towards Baker Street.

My mother has always loved it. She likes to look into the small front gardens, which in spring and summertime are packed with roses and old-fashioned bedding plants, wallflowers and Pansies, Busy Lizzies and Salvia. It’s a road in which you can stop and chat and stare into someone’s garden without causing any concern.

I enjoy looking at the flowers, but best of all I like watching the old people who live there. In the winter you don’t see so much of them, but in the summer they come out like the flowers they tend. They stand on their front steps, smiling at passers by and talking with their neighbours across the low fences between the houses. They have obviously lived there for years and grown old together.

It is a real community, and until recently has seemed something of an old people’s village. It’s ideally suited to this. It’s not on a hill. There’s sheltered accommodation at the top of the road, 2 excellent old fashioned pubs at the top and bottom of the street and the Open Market and Co-op are a short walk away. There are several small hairdressers and a barbershop close by in Baker Street and if anyone doesn’t feel up to shopping and cooking, there’s Bardsley’s fish and chip shop, a café, a pie shop and several other less traditional food outlets.

However, things appear to be changing in Kingsbury Road. When I walked down this week, I noticed the muffled sound of drums being played in a basement of one of the houses. Three doors down I saw builders stripping a house. They didn’t know what had happened to the old lady who lived there, but told me the house had been sold and was to be let to students.

I was saddened by this. Accommodation suitable for elderly frail people with limited mobility is quite rare in the city. It seems a shame to lose it. Most students are young and able bodied and well able to negotiate hills and walk fair distances to supermarkets. Not for the first time I wondered whether the universities – or indeed the council – have given any thought to the negative impact on some communities of overcrowded and often noisy student households.

I thought about what the residents of Kingsbury Road might be able to do to protect their community – if it becomes necessary. I realised that the person I’d recommend they contact (if they asked me) is publisher, conservationist and environmentalist Selma Montford – not because fine or historic buildings are at risk – but because a way of life just might be.

By strange coincidence, a few days earlier, I had interviewed Selma for this column. I’d asked to meet with her because I was intrigued by the virulence of Simon Fanshawe’s recent criticism of her and the passion and genuine affection with which many more people have leapt to her defence.

She’s an extraordinary woman, small and with the most piercing eyes. She listens intently, holding her head slightly to one side. When an idea strikes her she smiles and her eyes sparkle. Faced by an opponent, a lie, a bad idea – or the scent of corruption – she looks like nothing so much as a hawk sighting movement in long grass.

This is certainly not a woman to tangle with. But then her opponents know that. She worked for years as Director of the Lewis Cohen Urban Studies Centre at the University of Brighton – in its time a hub of community activity and an occasional thorn in the side of local councils. She is a driven campaigner, certain of her position, as campaigners need to be. She has resolution, courage and above all persistence.

She doesn’t need to make money, has no career to build and nothing to prove. Consequently, she can’t easily be influenced and she certainly can’t be bought. She’s an irritation to some and an inspiration to others, a defender of historic and fine modern buildings, a champion of what she calls ‘ordinary people’ and a gadfly on the flank of developers and carpetbaggers.

In these days of rampant ‘big’ development, and an increasing public backlash against it, she is much in demand. As Secretary of the Brighton Society and Chair of the Conservation Advisory Group she works with others to scrutinise major planning applications and to demand the highest standards of design in new developments.

Selma clearly sees the Brighton Society as the key independent planning ‘watchdog’. She and the late John Morley, former Director of the Royal Pavilion, set it up in 1973. Despite the fact that he was a senior council officer, John Morley saw the need for a campaigning independent organisation, which, where necessary, would be able to challenge council decisions and powerful vested interests. He was the first of several councillors and council officers who have covertly or otherwise welcomed Selma’s intervention.

Selma pointed out that the Society works to preserve not just “architecturally and historically interesting buildings”, but also “..the individual character of local neighbourhoods”. She stresses that the Society is not opposed to new developments, but will fight for good design and take into consideration “social needs as well as commercial factors”.

There is no doubt that in carrying out her responsibilities, Selma has put a spoke in the wheel of many an outside developer. Who else but Selma would have a good enough grasp of the council’s development strategy to know just how many hundreds of ‘affordable’ 1 and 2 bed units are planned for the sea front.

Who else would be in a position to judge whether the infrastructure exists to support them or to question their value to the community. She says “The developers hope to get planning permission on the back of these units, but they may not be the size or type of unit the community needs, or in the places it needs.”

What other campaigner would know enough of the detail to laughingly tell you that in one controversial proposed development some of the ‘bedrooms’ in the ‘affordable’ flats are so small that you can’t fit a bed into them.

Selma was born in the West Indies, but later returned to England, attending school in Oxford and Sussex. She became an artist and in 1962 began teaching print-making at Brighton College of Art. She came to love her adopted city.

As she spoke it became clear that Selma is passionate about retaining beautiful and historic buildings, not just because they are beautiful and of historic interest, but also because they are part of the fabric of our communities’ life. Wanton destruction of buildings tears the heart out of communities, because it destroys their history.

She is frustrated when Council officers fail to listen to people. “Ordinary people have so much to teach you. They know about their area and that knowledge should be tapped into. But all too often consultation is set up too late, once the council and developers have already spent time and money on plans. At that stage it’s usually too late.”

I asked her whether she is ever angered by those who accuse her – and residents who object to the big developments – as ‘nimbys’, ‘nay-sayers” and “the do nothing build nowhere brigade”.

She replied thoughtfully “I regret the tone of it. We’re not negative, but we’re forced into saying ‘no’ because many proposals are so inferior. If the council listened less to developers and their unelected supporters and more to ordinary people, their amenity groups and their elected representatives, it would not have so many problems.”

She said she was “optimistic” about the future and she has reason to be. There are now large numbers of people coming together to assert their right to plan for their own communities.

I asked whether she felt these groups needed to be drawn together. She agreed, but for a moment looked weary. Suddenly her eyes sparkled. “They need to join the Brighton Society!” she said.

She’s probably right.

The Brighton Society can be contacted c/o 10 Clermont Road, Brighton BN1 6SG.

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