Brighton and Hove business leaders ask planners for leeway

Posted On 25 Oct 2011 at 11:25 pm

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.

Spacewords Brighton

“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.

Outgrown

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.

xmas collections

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.”

Jobs

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.”

Difficult

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 said: “This is not a complacent city but a collaborative one where all sectors are working to champion business growth.”

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.”

Supported

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.

Modern

“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.”

  1. Valerie Paynter, saveHOVE Reply

    Chris Oakley’s comments are mostly bombastic, empty tripe.

    Why would he question the Brighton Wheel progress!!!!!!! “Rough ride” ? Quoi!? When it was the Brighton O at the West Pier it was insane. And rightly seen off. When Paramount agreed to put a flat-pack, off-the-peg design east of the Brighton Pier, it got planning officer and Planning Committee support after a perfectly normal application process – and both saveHOVE and The Brighton Society considered it acceptable. Indeed, I welcomed it. What rough ride? Nah.

    Why would Oakley be scandalised when seriously inept or just plain wicked applictions don’t succeed? Why does he seem to blame BHCC for things like the Marina development that has not been built (in spite of having planning consent), and the Gala Bingo Hall (which also has planning consent)! His resort to arrogant flim-flam spin reflects badly on him.

    He was right about the Council hanging onto redundant office spaces, however. There is a deeply difficult problem around policy retention of B1 and B8 areas that simply do not work and never will again until they are demolished and rebuilt or in some cases – like the Conway Street/Newtown Road/Sackville Trading estate area – even given up for different uses (not B1 or B8!). Housing/retail/schools use there would bring a deadish area back to life.

    The comments made about failure to (policy) cater for mid-sized firms like Infinity and Rayner are new to the public ear, I reckon, and so useful that I am sure BHCC will wish to address this gap in policy if it can.

    IKEA would hoover in vast out-of-town visitor numbers whose money would usefully be left in this city. Indeed, i would expect some visitors to potentialy use an IKEA carpark as an informal park and ride facility as they come to go to the beach, say, for an hour or so. Neither Rayner, nor Infinity can do that.

    The Infinity/Rayner kind of company is pure gold of another kind and, like American Express, offers a feeling of permanence, security, employment stability and something to be proud of as well within the other whirling changes. I almost think of Infinity, Rayner and AMEX as a kind of “infrastructure” – some kinds of employers amount to that.

    Sadly, the “jobs” that politicians screech most about when promoting development as A Good Thing are those in Construction only. A country that obsessively builds just to give jobs in Construction is potty. It’s the jobs after things are built that matter most.

    When “hardly anything got built” arguments come up, it is important to look at the adequacy and skills and motives of developers who sometimes take the proverbial with bullying contempt. Sometimes land was acquired too expensively and ludicrous applications go in that are about recouping money spent on that land and I would put the Hyde Housing Association predicament over their Park House holding in that category. They are committed to an overdevelopment that is not in the interests of the city because they have to get their money back!

    And example of a responsible developer was the now-defunct Parkridge which understood and addressed all 19 of the reasons for losing their first planning application for redevelopment of the Sackville Trading Estate. They came back with a wonderful application which got consent. Sadly, the time needed to relocate Rayner Optical happened in tandem with the recession and now the loss of developers Parkridge, means this too is now on hold.

    If “almost nothing got built”, in recent years, it was not down to planning officers getting in the way and Chris Oakley should be totally ashamed of his extremely irresponsible, childish sniping.

    My message to would-be developers is to do a better, more thorough job of buying land, preparing your applications and supporting documentation and don’t wait to consult with residents and stakeholders until AFTER it has all been done and you just want to tick a box to say you “consulted” ahead of defiantly submitting planning applications that are bound to fail, but which it is assumed can be bulldozed through somehow, often via the Appeals process.

  2. JB Reply

    It is interesting that Chris Oakley cites failed projects like the King Alfred Centre as a reason why Brighton and Hove has a poor reputation with developers and businesses.

    I could not agree more.
    Some good proposals were submitted for the King Alfred development, and in a public consultation exercise it was clear which were the most popular.

    The final choice was the Gehry proposal, which was the least popular with residents. It wasn’t even a complete proposal and looked like something quickly penned as a placeholder for a commission that the architect had little interest and did not expect to win.

    The Council’s justification for selecting this project was that it had the best financial base.
    The real reason was that they were dazzled by the prospect of commissioning a building from a “star architect”.

    Ironically, the project soon faltered for financial reasons and various attempts were made to alter the balance between amenities and housing development.

    Strong local opposition to the project was met with a dirty tricks campaign… does anyone remember when the developer paid local drama students to fill the public gallery during a critical Council meeting and parade outside with placards supporting the development?

    The council seemed desperate to prop up a scheme that was poorly thought out and lacked proper financial support.

    Eventually, the project died.

    Several developers produced detailed, well thought out plans and models that complied with the original project requirements. The cost of doing this must have been considerable.

    The Gehry proposal never met the original requirements of the commissioning process, and the local Council are fortunate that none of the other bidders chose to challenge their decision in court.

    I am sure that Council officials were relieved when no legal action was taken against the Council, but in fact the damage has been far worse.

    Rather than seek reparation, developers have simply avoided getting involved in any substantial landmark proposals in this city.

    They realise that there is no point in putting significant money into a project when the commissioning process is broken and corrupt.

    What is clear from the King Alfred debacle is that local authorities should concentrate their efforts on improving infrastructure, amenities and the quality of life of residents and not get bamboozled into vanity projects that don’t serve anyone’s needs.

    That means a genuinely transparent and competitive bidding and commissioning process within a well thought out city development plan that has the confidence and approval of residents.
    Then things move forward quickly and people are happy.

  3. Valerie Paynter, saveHOVE Reply

    Amen to that JB. And a Post Script. It was Karis, able to offer financial backing from the giant ING bank as well as the promise of Frank Gehry “putting the city on the map” that secured the King Alfred commission.

    BHCC looked at ING instead of the picture eventually told by the District Valuer’s report that condemned the project as “borderline unviable”. Post consent, with the arrival of global financial catastrophe, both Gehry and ING pulled out. End of.

    The Labour Party is thought to have been bounced out of office in May 2007 in part because of the King Alfred. And heads rolled at BHCC too, both immediately after the planning decision and further down the road too…….

  4. helen Reply

    JB, you are very out of touch, the Brighton wheel had a rough ride ever since the local residents with the wheel slap bang in front of their homes, have been campaigning tirelessly and making the wheel company’s life hell. Why do you think the wheel lights are so boring? Those were the most amount they were allowed, despite requesting planning permission for millions of lumins and colors. Who wants to go in hot glass box on a sunny day anyway?

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