I talk to Rob Blackman, the leader of Lewes District Council, and Clive Wilding of Santon, just after they submit their ‘North Street Quarter’ application. My first questions are about ownership: is Lewes District Council selling its land? “No, this is a joint venture, the detail of which is still being worked out”, Rob tells me. Clive goes on to explain there are several options but a lot of the business units will probably be leasehold. “The main objective is to optimise value over a period of time, both for us and the council.”
Santon’s plans for the 6.3 hectare site have evolved. They’ve ruled out a focus on food retailing (“that wasn’t right for the town”) and other large retailers (“they said Lewes is not of sufficient size”). The latest scheme includes 416 residential properties, around 65,000 square feet of business space, a health centre, a public square and a riverside walk with a footbridge. “People make streets”, insists Clive Wilding, “not cars”.
That business space is open to a wide range of uses. “What we’ve applied for”, says Clive, “is what we call multi-consented workspace. It gives them flexibility. Small start-up businesses can’t afford to wait for planning consent to change their use.” Covenants will prohibit certain uses, such as fast food and gambling. “I think this is where the joint venture works really well”, adds Rob, “because we’ve been able to influence how that develops.” There’s even a commitment to providing subsidised space for start-up businesses.
What’s the future for existing tenants in their run-down warehouses? “It’s difficult to know who’s actually down there and who’s working full time”, Clive Wilding claims. Meanwhile, the new buildings “are fully insurable, they can cope with all the smoke detectors, all the Health & Safety that’s required… a lot of those businesses down there are not currently insurable.”
Let’s talk about the housing. The Santon/LDC partnership describes 40 per cent of the houses and flats as being ‘affordable’: a term defined by UK government. “It’s subsidised housing”, explains Clive. “It is made available to people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford to rent or buy something in the open market.” In addition, 15 percent of the ‘open market’ properties will be prioritised for people who live or work locally.
Ultimately, Clive seems upbeat about redeveloping the North Street Quarter. “We're following approved local plan policy, which has been through a long process. The housing shortage is getting worse each year. Those are big drivers to give us the confidence that this is the right scheme, at the right time, in the right place.” Rob Blackman tells me the consultation process is being adopted by the council as best practice. “It has been a fantastic experience and a great journey… and I don't think we could have done any more."
Chelsea Renton doesn’t share this enthusiasm for the project. “What it doesn’t have – which is crucial for the town – is a substantial proportion of social rented housing, it doesn’t have the kind of workspace the town needs and it’s demolishing the remains of our cultural heritage.” She’s co-founder of Lewes Phoenix Rising Ltd, a community development company that want to see the best of the existing warehouse buildings retained as part of an alternative redevelopment scheme. They’ve drawn up a plan that shows renovated warehouses, social housing and live/work spaces on just under a quarter of the site, with the rest being developed commercially by Santon and LDC. “Every time we’ve asked Santon or the council ‘how much would it cost for the community to buy part of the site?’, they won’t give us that answer. We believe that if everybody keeps pushing for what the town needs, hopefully there will be a point when LDC and Santon take a step back and say ‘okay, let’s talk’.”
"I think most people feel disenfranchised or that it's just too big to deal with. We shouldn’t underestimate our ability to change things. If people care, they need to campaign, to write to the planning authority, write to their councillor, the newspapers... whatever it takes."
What about the suggestion that some of the Lewes Phoenix Rising campaigners are tenants protecting their own interests? “And what’s wrong with that if their interests are crucial to the economic and social wellbeing of a town? All would defend the loss of a fishing fleet or factory. Why not defend Lewes’ unique economy of manufacturing, making and creativity, much of which is based on the Phoenix? We’re not saying people need new buildings at low rents. We’re saying people need basic, affordable workspace.”
It’s a perspective largely echoed by Lewes Town Council, which rejected the Santon/LDC proposal in mid-April. Councillor Susan Murray, who chairs the town council’s planning committee, says “most of us felt the main problem arose around employment and housing”. Not only would dispersing the Phoenix-based business community result in the loss of jobs in the town, it would also adversely affect the town’s character. Then there was the question of affordability. “What the town council always says about any application that comes before us [is] ‘where is the commitment to provide truly affordable social housing at social rents that the children of Lewes people can afford to live in?’ And we didn’t feel there was much of that.”
The town council is one of the organisations that the SDNPA is obliged to consult, although “we don’t get to make any of the final decisions”, Susan says. This consultation period ends on 30th April 2015 but the SDNPA says it’ll keep taking comments into account if they're received before a decision is made. So whether you like the look of the Santon North Street plan, prefer the alternative proposal by Lewes Phoenix Rising or have your own perspective, there’s still time to tell the planning authority. The next incarnation of the Phoenix is in our hands.
Planning application SDNP/15/01146/FUL can be found online at southdowns.gov.uk; comments can be submitted online, by email or in writing to Tim Bettany-Simmons at the South Downs Centre, North Street, Midhurst GU29 9DH
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 104 May 2015.