Hove business boss prepares to share his King Alfred dreams

Posted On 21 Aug 2012 at 6:59 am

Two and a half years ago Rob Starr couldn’t swim. Less than a fortnight ago he swam the English Channel as part of a relay team of six people.

Mr Starr is nothing if not determined.

The insurance company boss will need every ounce of that determination if his latest project is to succeed.

He wants to do something that has thwarted many over the past 40 years, their ambitions frustrated by failure and disappointment.

Mr Starr wants to knock down the King Alfred Leisure Centre. In its place he wants to build a theatre and a home for the arts.

Rob Starr

He wants the complex to include education and community facilities, a leisure and health and fitness centre.

He is well aware that big dreams and ambitious schemes for the site have come and gone.

This time, things will be different if Mr Starr has his way.

The 43-year-old Hove businessman is working with Haworth Tompkins, architects to the arts world.

Their design for the Chichester Festival Theatre was recently granted planning and listed building consent. Previous projects have included the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, the Young Vic and the Hayward Gallery.

Mr Starr said: “What we can produce at the King Alfred is not going to compete with London. It will compete with Barcelona, Sydney, Hong Kong.

“It will be a world-class building in the way it looks and what it does.

“We’ve not designed the building. We’ve designed what we want the building to do.

“We’re aware that the King Alfred needs something doing and the council wants something to happen.

“At the King Alfred at the moment you can’t see the sea from the building and you can’t get into it from the seafront.

“We’ve got architects to scope out the principles. We want a single place for all mediums of art and culture.

“It will have an art gallery for professionals and amateurs, music studios for people to learn about music and for music therapy.

“You will be able to write and create there and bands can record and perform.

“We’re planning two theatres with 200 seats and 500 seats, eight rehearsal rooms and two dance studios.

“We’ve also got some health including a swimming pool to replace the King Alfred pool.

“We don’t want to have a big gym but there will be some health and fitness.

“We want to price it so that it’s a community centre. We want to bring everybody in.

“We’ve got a fantastic volunteers scheme. It’s not finalised yet. It’s so people who haven’t got money can pay their way with time.

“People will guarantee us so many hours a year perhaps working front of house or doing something else.”

He said that the aim was for a charitable trust to run the centre on a not-for-profit basis, making it easier to keep prices within the reach of every section of the community.

He is also exploring a form of sea-powered energy that involves chemical reactions rather than tidal power.

His architects are in talks with a contractor who has a track record with the renewable energy technology.

Mr Starr said: “We want sustainability in every respect.”

He and his architects are also working on storyboards with the aim of sharing their vision with the people who live and work in the area within a month or so.

He is keen to consult widely before designs are worked up and has already met with Save Hove which campaigned against the last scheme for the site.

He knows there will be many varied opinions but he is keen to listen to local concerns and to try to work with them as far as possible.

The last scheme for the site created a storm of controversy. The developer Karis and architect Frank Gehry came up with a £290 million plan based around two wobbly-looking tower blocks and eight other buildings.

They hoped to cram 750 flats on to the site as well as a sports centre and shops.

The plans were approved by Brighton and Hove City Council planners in March 2007 with the backing of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. The Conservatives and Greens were both in opposition and both against the plans.

Karis had dismissed an independent report questioning the project’s financial viability in 2006 but by November 2009, with the credit crunch affecting bank lending, the money men pulled the plug.

The plan was one of about ten to make it to the planning application stage since 1971 – more than 40 years ago.

And four of those plans were approved, including schemes proposing an ice rink. But none has been built.

The play’s the thing

Early talks have already taken place about Mr Starr’s ideas. Some have asked why a successful businessman is so keen on what could be dismissed as a community arts centre.

Mr Starr said: “My love has always been theatre. I’ve written plays and they’ve been produced.

“In the back of my mind I’ve always thought it would be lovely to own a theatre. But I had to earn a living so the thought had to stay in the back of my mind.”

Instead Mr Starr started an insurance and mortgage broking business called Seico 22 years ago.

It’s based near Hove Station and has flourished enough that Mr Starr’s late father Edward came and worked for him.

They sat opposite each other for ten years until Mr Starr’s father died. Mr Starr and his family set up a charity in his father’s memory.

He said: “Losing him six years ago was as big a blow as one could have in life. But I wanted to focus on the positive rather than wallow in the pity.

“We set up the Edward Starr Charitable Trust to help make children smile.

An artist’s impression of the Karis and Frank Gehry plans for the King Alfred

“We’ve funded 62 projects in 19 countries. We fund scholarships and projects and it’s all about two things – a positive impact and a smile.”

The trust funds many children in the south east of England and runs international projects through a scheme called Children Helping Other Children Smile (CHOCS).

He said: “We run an educational programme. We work with a school. The children are usually in Year 10. We offer those children three of our international projects.

“This is all about empowering children and helping them become social entrepreneurs.

“We go through the projects with the kids. They debate it and they choose which one to support.

“They draw up a charter and it introduces them to this adult world where they get responsibility and choice.

“At Varndean last year they chose a charity in Peru. The Grand Hotel came on board as our business partner.

“They helped them learn the business skills you need to run a charity – talking, planning, budgeting – and the kids decided how much to raise.

“Then they spent a year fundraising for this centre for autistic children in Peru.

“The children in Peru made a video at the end of the year. It shows individual children thanking individual children.”

He said that his business success meant that he could support the running costs of the charitable trust so that 100 per cent of the money raised went where it was intended.

Mr Starr said: “CHOCS is something I get really excited about. It’s only in its third year. It could easily go global.”

He said that six schools were involved at the moment along with “amazing business partners”.

He added: “All you need is a local school and a local business to support a local charity. Even our international charities are run by people who live locally.”

Some of the projects have involved music and theatre and they have perhaps helped to revive Mr Starr’s theatrical dreams.

He knows that the odds he now faces are even longer than for the successful Channel swim through which he raised more than £70,000 for the charity in his father’s name.

But he’s already proved his tenacity as he prepares to bring the arts and swimming together under one roof.

As he contemplates his achievement and his hopes, he quotes Henry Ford, saying: “If you believe you can or if you believe you can’t, either way you are right.”

Taking the tide

Mr Starr swam the Channel just under a fortnight ago as part of a team of six in a relay.

The 43-year-old father of three, who lives and works in Hove, was raising money for the Edward Starr Charitable Trust which was set up in memory of his father.

When he agreed to the challenge, having just turned 40, he couldn’t even swim.

He said: “I went into the sea for the first time in April 2010.

“We’ve had people jumping out of aeroplanes. We’ve had people running marathons. I felt I had to do something bigger than everyone else as I’m the chairman (of the trust).”

He decided to run the Brighton Marathon, which he did in April, and he had hoped to swim the Channel last year but a bout of bad health put paid to his plans.

Instead of giving up, he roped in five friends. He said: “It’s still a massive challenge but you’re only in the water for an hour at a time.”

The six swimmers and their support boat set off from Dover at about 4am on Wednesday 8 August.

Mr Starr was joined by Brighton DJ Alex Downey, 38, Hove book editor Lindy Dunlop, 48, Hove dentist James Hooper, 56, Brighton University lecturer Leo Santos-Shaw, 48, and holistic therapist Shoichi Yanagisawa, 34, from Hove.

They all belong to Brighton Swimming Club.

Mr Starr well remembers approaching Fiona Southwell, who also belongs to Brighton Swimming Club and is the oldest woman to have swum the Channel solo.

Mr Starr said: “I told her I wanted to swim the Channel and she said: ‘Don’t be so daft!’ But she took us on.”

He said that her advice and guidance had been crucial as Team Starrfish undertook “12 hours and 57 minutes of madness”.

He said: “We had expected, and hoped for, a calm sea throughout and a bright sun once the moon had dropped off.

“What we got was a gale force 4 from start to finish, a cloud covering that was greyer than something very grey and the odd splat of rain.

“So this, clearly, was not going to be a Channel swim with ease.

“The swim itself was gladly not plagued by jellyfish as we all feared and a force 4 gale, while very choppy and bumpy, was not enough to stop six swimmers who spend every morning in the sea off Brighton.”

He said that he was the slowest of the six swimmers, but added: “My average of 52 strokes a minute was good enough for someone who two years ago could hardly swim and had never been in the sea.”

To donate, go to http://www.justgiving.com/swim4smiles2011.


  1. Valerie Paynter, saveHOVE Reply

    ….and Rob Starr has done all this without publicity as far as I can tell. He is just focussed on doing the work. He is driven, but with a light heart.

    Whilst saveHOVE has supported development at Sackville Trading Estate (in fact) and around Hove Station (in principle), King Alfred is where saveHOVE began in summer 2005. That site is where the heart is.

    The seafront is this city’s Unique Selling Point and should be at the heart of driving its economy. It isn’t. Instead BHCC has junked it up with bits and bobs and wants to put housing on it at King Alfred.

    This article is reminding me of details I had forgotten about from the meeting I had with Rob Starr (I was not recording or writing!). And reading this I get again the upbeat, positive and truly constructive vibe Starr offers.

    There is reason here to hope for a good outcome. He has finance in place. He has a scheme in principle that is a match for the city and how it sees itself.

    I would add one forgotten detail from the meeting I had with Starr. That housing element. We discussed where else it could go……! And there are options.

    When the Greens turned against the Karis scheme (having at first loved it), there was a Policy and Resources meeting in which Keith Taylor and Georgia Wrighton for the Greens attempted to negotiate off-site housing provision but they failed to nail it down as any kind of contractual obligation and Ken Bodfish, Labour’s leader at the time, cackled out of that meeting bigtime, having rolled them. No off-siting for the housing.

    The seafront was only saved by the global financial collapse and the Karis planning consent was not used. And Labour paid for their folly at the next election as they were nearly destroyed. That is how sensitive the seafront is and how high the stakes are, in Hove and well beyond.

  2. Keith Reply

    You can’t knock it down, that’s where I learnt to swim in the 60s!
    Just kidding the sooner the better, what a monstrosity.
    You have my full support

  3. Bobby Reply

    Doesn’t this proposal also include a substantial number of new homes? I’ve heard a figure of 400 from somewhere. The project sounds very ambitious and I question whether this project will in the fullnessbof time join the chain of over hyped but ultimately flawed and financially unviable schemes which are talked about lots in Brighton & Hove but go nowhere (Brighton marina; original King Alfred; Black Rock ice arena anybody?!). Starr certainly has a dream and a vision for the site, and his passion is to be commended. I fear though that the project may not materialise once the commercial realities and risks of such a project in this climate are finally identified and quantified. Odd that this article makes no mention of the housing numbers at all?

  4. Frank le Duc Reply

    Bobby, you’re right. The proposal is consistent with the council’s stated intentions for the site – that is, about 400 homes.

  5. Valerie Paynter, Reply

    Starr did not mention the housing component to me either until I brought it up. The elephant in the dream space.

    Anyone wanting to understand what developers are REQUIRED to put into any application proposal for the King Alfred should look at the Local Plan Policy SR24 which is effectively the Council’s planning brief for the site here: http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/downloads/bhcc/local_plan_2005/adopted_local_plan-saved_policies_july_08_Chapter06.pdf on page 35 of 38. And elsewhere look at SPGBH 10 too. 300-400 units of housing is a council demand and wish and policy for the site. Alas.

    Try lobbying the council to change it for the City Plan.

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