Business leaders took part in a debate this evening about whether Brighton and Hove holds back or champions business expansion.
One of the most compelling images came from a description given by a member of the audience.
Jan Burgess, who founded training company Educast, said: “There’s such a lot of empty office space in Brighton.
“You queue as you come in down the A23 and the first thing you see is a lot of To Let signs.
“They’re not a good advertisement.
“Even schemes like the Astoria, which sounds like it’s going to be really good, took a long time. That building stood empty for years.”
She added that many existing offices and business premises in Brighton and Hove were just not fit for purpose.
One of the panellists, Dom Ferrari, spelt out the problems facing his business. He works for the wholesale arm of Infinity Foods, which has outgrown its warehouse and distribution centre in Norway Street, Portslade.
He told the audience at the Pelham Tower site of City College Brighton and Hove: “In the 11 years since I joined Infinity Foods we no longer walk around our warehouse wondering what we’re going to do with all our space.”
This echoed a theme spelt out by Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce president Julia Chanteray – that Brighton and Hove was great for business start-ups but less good when it came to business expansion for mid-sized firms.
Mr Ferrari said that the way that Brighton and Hove City Council focused on new business “seems to leave no time for middle-sized businesses like us”.
He said: “We’re not involved in any of the industries that Brighton and Hove wants to promote.
“We’re not an eco business. We’re not a digital company. And, although we produce a wonderful catalogue, we’re not a creative business.”
Infinity Foods has looked at several sites in its search for a new home, he said, adding: “We looked at Hollingbury and it became clear that the council was trying to attract Ikea there.
“If you gain an Ikea but lose a Rayners (from the Sackville Trading Estate in Hove) and an Infinity Foods, what have you gained?
“I echo the CBI’s call to emulate German policy and help middle-sized businesses grow.”
Greg Hadfield, of Brighton digital media agency Cogapp, raised a laugh by pointing out: “Only in Brighton could you describe an organic food business as not flavour of the month.”
On a more serious note, he said that we had to ask what we were seeking to achieve, adding: “It’s about jobs.”
Another panellist, Chris Oakley, executive chairman of estate agency Oakley Property, said that Brighton and Hove had built a negative reputation among developers and big companies.
He said that they did not regard Brighton and Hove as somewhere that they could do business in part because so many big projects had faltered.
He cited the King Alfred, the failed expansion of Churchill Square and the Brighton Centre and the expansion at Brighton Marina.
He added: “The Open Market, Gala bingo hall and the Brighton Wheel all had a pretty rough ride.”
Mr Oakley also said that the council interpreted planning policies too strictly, adding: “The solution has to be a more balanced view being taken by the council.”
He said that local political backdrop had been difficult with control of the council passing from Labour to the Conservatives and then the Greens.
He said: “The Labour and Conservative administrations were in office during a great boom but hardly anything got built – just the Falmer Stadium.
“We can’t judge the greens yet. It’s too early. But they’ve made a good start.”
He based this on the planning permission given recently to Block J at Brighton Station and the new building planned for the site of the old Astoria in Gloucester Place, Brighton.
He indicated that office rents were depressed when compared with the relative buoyancy of the housing market, making it hard to justify building dedicated offices.
He told the audience at the debate, which was organised by Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce: “If you can’t make a profit, businesses aren’t going to invest here.
“Brighton needs to encourage developers to come into the city and not put up barriers.”
He talked about the cost of planning contributions – known as section 106 agreements – and added: “It’s going to be very hard to get any infrastructure built over the next ten years. The council is going to have to give and take a bit.”
Addressing the council’s desire to protect office space Mr Oakley also said: “In my experience the market generally prevails.
“A lot of poor quality office space could be used for housing – it would help the city meet its housing targets.”
Another panellist, Martin Randall, the council’s head of planning and public protection, presented a list of significant schemes which had been approved over the past few years.
He defended the role of planning, the attempts to protect office space in readiness for economic recovery and the council’s track record of encouraging business expansion.
Mr Randall added that more than 80 per cent of planning applications were approved while the approval rate for business applications was more than 90 per cent.
He said that planners had to take a long-term view which sometimes meant taking longer to get things right.
But he also said: “American Express had a vitally important decision to make about where to put its European HQ.
“The city council moved swiftly and decisively to do a land deal. It’s being built and we’ve got one satisfied customer.
“In these economic conditions we can hardly afford to be complacent.”
He was supported by fellow panellist Paul Zara, an architect at Conran and Partners, which opened its office in Brighton four years ago.
Mr Zara said: “The new administration has a leader and deputy leader who actually understand development.
“People see the new stadium at Falmer and the academy there and want some of that in the city centre.”
He called for a business district running, broadly, from the station down to the sea and added: “I don’t think it’s fair of Chris to criticise the council for the King Alfred which the council approved and Brighton Marina which the council approved and the Brighton Centre. That’s the recession.”
He said that the housing market was holding up but there was a threat to office space.
Councillors and officers were always saying that the city’s open for business, he said. “It’s been a bit of a political slogan. We’ve got to make it a reality.”
Colin Monk, pro-vice-chancellor of Brighton University, said: “Brighton holds back business but the city council doesn’t. The geography holds business back.
“In the 17th century we would just go and annex somewhere like Newhaven.
“We need to do something a bit more modern and work with neighbouring areas despite the political difficulties.
“Let’s think about how we use the really scarce thing we’ve got which is space.”
Business adviser Kerry Kyriacou said: “Larger organisations are trying to shed staff and encourage more staff to work from home, particularly with the advances in technology.”
He praised the Gatwick Diamond business association which encouraged several towns to work together and urged Brighton and Hove to emulate it with neighbouring towns.
Before the debate, a spokesman for the council tackled the topic of the debate head on, saying: “It’s a cliché that doesn’t seem to be supported by the facts.
“We’re encouraging business by every means possible in the middle of a recession.
“This ranges from granting planning permissions on controversial and difficult sites to winning awards for marketing the city.
“It’s a difficult economic climate all over the UK but we’re holding our own.”
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