The City We Want

Argus title : People who like glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones

I need to earn more.

It occurred to me that I might take up window cleaning. Acres of glass are appearing around the city. The new library is covered with it, Carluccio’s restaurant in Church Street glistens with it and there’s a so called ‘Glass Pavilion’ being built opposite the real Pavilion.

Gehry’s proposed twin towers at the King Alfred sparkled with crumpled glass as does the proposed lighthouse at the Marina. First sight of the design for the new conference centre suggest that, yes, there’ll be an awful lot of glass in that too.

I rather like glass, but I do distrust architects and planners. I fear future generations may come to loathe this decade’s monumental glass structures as much as we deplore previous generations’ obsession with concrete.

One thing is certain, since last November, a sustained offensive has been underway to batter out of existence all opposition to individual large developments, glazed or otherwise. Of recent weeks, prominent supporters of these developments have been increasingly vocal. Interviews with pro-development business leaders are being reported and articles published both in this and other local newspapers and magazines. A flurry of letters from supporters of development has recently been published.

Even the new Head of Brighton College, barely three months into the job and new to the city, waded in to berate recalcitrant locals to shape up.

Four consistent messages are being pumped out:
– major developments are a ‘good thing’ and rejection of one is likely to bring about collapse of the others
– blocking their progress is likely to condemn Brighton & Hove to economic stagnation
– local councillors and members of the Planning Committee who oppose them are acting irresponsibly
– local people who object are parochial and selfish, putting their own personal interests above those of the city as a whole.

I have seen little evidence to support any of these arguments, but there is no denying the passion with which they are being delivered. The tone of the debate has become increasingly aggressive and it must be difficult for dissenters to withstand the pressure.

Local dissenters have been charged with ‘nimbyism’, failure of vision and lack of imagination – and even of trying to drive up the value of their houses by depressing the local supply of housing. Elected politicians have been accused of giving undue weight to the sectional interests of constituents in order to maintain their political position. Prominent campaigners have been vilified in the press and on the internet.

The criticisms have been shot through with ageist assumptions about those who protest. The disputed developments have been characterised as dynamic, vigorous and appropriate for a ‘young’ city (a “baby metropolis” as one publication recently called it, a “place to make money and everything else besides”) while those who have challenged any of the major developments have been caricatured as ‘old’ and stuck in their ways.

Ken Fines, retired Borough Planning Officer, has vigorously opposed the King Alfred development. An anonymous opponent wrote of him: “Ken Fines, 82 – leader of the save HOVA nimby group, he will probably not be with us once these high rises are complete anyway so I wish he’d just shut up and let our city evolve.”

The belligerence of the attacks upon protesters indicates, not just anger and frustration, but also perhaps a degree of panic. It is said that Brighton is ‘stagnating’, its council unable to make a decision. It is also suggested that major developers will, if thwarted, take their investments to other cities where planning consents are easier to obtain.

Tony Mernagh of Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership has said “if the city gets the reputation for saying ‘no’ to developments at the planning stage, developers will take their money elsewhere”. This is an extraordinary statement. For the ‘planning stage’ is the first point at which elected councillors can legally be expected to be able to make fully informed decisions on the basis of all the evidence as to whether an application should proceed.

Of course, the council should have consulted far more widely at an earlier stage. Some recent disputes could possibly have been avoided if it had done so – particularly in respect of its decision to permit tall buildings. That policy change was arguably as momentous, and potentially as disruptive to some householders, as say demolishing houses to rebuild Kemp Town railway. Yet most residents of Brighton & Hove knew nothing about it and even the few who did thought that it implied a modest increase in height to around 8 – 10 storeys. It is hardly surprising that local residents faced with high rise blocks of around 40 storeys are up in arms.

The reality is that the council, having failed to listen to local people at an earlier stage has been shocked by the powerful wave of dissent which various planning applications have unleashed. The Council leadership has been given a (metaphorical) bloody nose by protesters. However, this is democracy in action, not stagnation, and developers will recognise this (though of course they will not say it).

Developers know that many other successful and dynamic city councils have stronger conservation lobbies and are more discriminating than this one about proposed new developments. Brighton & Hove is after all, the city which has allowed the West Pier to fall into the sea. No sane developer could see its council as a hostage to environmentalists.

Setbacks for some developments may deter carpetbaggers, but will not prevent responsible developers from working with the council – though developers may be more sceptical in future about assurances of public support for inappropriate designs.

Pro-development campaigners tend to present themselves as having a grasp of the ‘bigger picture’, suggesting they have at heart the overall well being of the city while opponents are essentially self-interested. They too readily forget that developers do not invest in the city because it is in the city’s interests. They do so to make money – a great deal of it.

Experience both here and elsewhere in the UK indicates that even the much vaunted 40% ‘affordable housing’ which is associated with all local development bids – and at the planning stage is used to justify the huge scale of the buildings – is later often reduced or becomes far from ‘affordable’.

And the pro-development lobby itself is perhaps not as disinterested as it might appear. For example, writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe is passionate about his adopted city. In his capacity as Chair of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership he has spoken out repeatedly in favour of major developments and condemned councillors on the Planning Committee who voted against the proposed Marina development as “small-minded” and “parochial”..

But Simon is not just Chair of the Forum. He is also Chair of the Board of “Midnight Communications” a prominent public relations firm which works for Brunswick Developments, the firm which is developing the Marina. Simon is a good man and I have no doubt that he sincerely believes what he has said, but he has at least as much personal interest in the development as any objecting local resident.

I do not suggest that the pro development lobby has acted improperly, merely that that developers are powerful and that those close to them are likely to have access to means of influence and persuasion which are not so readily available to ordinary members of the public.

In such circumstances it is vitally important that the council ensures full communication and a level playing field, both in developing its strategic vision for the city and in reaching decisions on individual developments.

The present situation must be particularly hard for members of the Planning Committee, especially those who have voted against individual developments. Their duty is to act impartially on the basis of the evidence before them, reaching fair judgements to the best of their ability. Under pressure to change their views, they have faced ridicule and insult.

There is a fine line between forceful lobbying and bullying designed to pressurise people into changing their views. Though the latter is not illegal, it can, I think, be as morally repugnant as offering a bribe.

It’s a rare thing for me to defend politicians, but here I think there are grounds to do so. It is vitally important for our democracy that elected councillors are free to fulfil their duties without undue pressure. And equally important to ensure that ordinary citizens are kept fully informed about decisions that may affect their lives, remaining free to question and challenge the council – and its quangos – without being vilified or insulted.

In short, what is required is a little less glass and a lot more transparency.

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