Designation of North Laine conservation area

Photo:Proposed South Spine Road in the Wilson-Wommersley Plan

Proposed South Spine Road in the Wilson-Wommersley Plan

It had been threatened with destruction

By Geoffrey Mead

The early history of the North Laine is covered well in every copy of the North Laine Runner by the inclusion of a statement on the origin of the term laine; and often there are articles gleaned from early newspapers or compiled by diligent students from the wide range of directories and other source materials held in the Brighton History Centre.

A gap in this span of history

I have to come clean here and admit to authorship of various articles on the history of the North Laine, as well as being a 'prodding' tutor to local history students (both British and from the USA) researching the area, many of whom have gone on to better things! There are of course many items of recent history contained in the Runner and on this website. There is, however, something of a gap in this span of history and that is the period leading up to the designation of the North Laine as a Brighton Conservation Area. One of the few - but very important - articles about this period was published in the North Laine Runner, No 180, May/June 2006 by the former Chief Planning Officer of Brighton, Ken Fines, the instigator of the new conservation areas. (It is now a page on this website.)

Articles in the journal Built Environment

Recently this 'lost era' came to mind when I stumbled across several articles in a 1970s monthly publication Built Environment (BE). As is often the way with research I came across this obscure professional journal by serendipitous be exact, by dint of my poor record keeping, that entailed my revisiting the University of Sussex Library. Leafing through BE for 1974/5 trying to track down an article I had (but had not referenced!) I found several articles about planning decisions and proposals for Brighton. As this was a time of enormous change (often horrendous change) I had to stop and read them.

A letter to the editor

There were several articles and a 'Letter to the Editor' by David Lloyd, at that time an academic working at Portsmouth Polytechnic but also a member of the Institute of Town Planning and an advisor to the Victorian Society. Lloyd quite obviously loved the then town and commented scathingly on the way the resort and its surrounding communities was being ravaged by decisions then being taken at various levels, both within the resort (before 1974 when a County Borough) but also at County Hall Lewes, which after January 1974 was the planning authority.

A hotbed of controversy

The period of the 1970s was a hotbed of controversy within the fields of town planning and conservation and there were several high profile set piece conflicts, both in London at Tolmers Square and locally with Brighton Station, Brighton Marina and the dreaded Wilson-Wommersley Plan (more to follow...). BE dealt with the issues both on the high cerebral plane and at the grassroots level, and David Lloyd was a staunch supporter of the need to preserve the character of areas in the resort, without ditching the realisation of the need for change in rapidly transforming inner urban areas.

Conservation for whom?

In January 1974 Built Environment carried an editorial which set the tone for many later pieces. It was a prescient view of the situation in many central areas in British cities, those away from the 'obvious' charms of the historic core or indeed the leafy bowers of the suburbs and the protected Green Belt. The unattributed article 'Conservation for whom?' stated:

"The familiar is comfortable; everyone having seen the future and not liking what they have seen prefers atavism. But in rebelling have we gone too far? Conservation has often become a desperate attempt to preserve any building with the slightest historical value to shield any community from change. Taken to its limit, conservation is an instrument for resisting all manifestations of 'progress' and can easily stifle the dynamism which is essential to the survival of our urban system."

The view of David Lloyd

This was a view prevalent in the 1960s and 70s where the 'white heat' of progress - roads, shopping centres, high rise developments - was all seen as preferable to the preservation of older domestic housing and manufacturing districts. David Lloyd noted in an article on Brighton's proposed developments that:

"Brighton provides one of the most dramatic examples of the evolution of a historic area. The Lanes, once the whole town, became a squalid backwater, then a place for special, though at first often shabby, shops and finally what is now one of the most sophisticated environment conscious shopping areas in the south."

Nearly 35 years on there are many points of coincidence with the North Laine in that statement; indeed in another article the next month (February 1974) on the pedestrianisation scheme for East Street (not implemented) Lloyd goes on to say:

"Might we expect this to be the start of a wider scheme to improve ...north of the Pavilion environs...and what of the dozens of 'Regency' streets off the seafront...and those between the Steine and the station? Almost all of Brighton matters - and a great deal of it does need some sort of improving treatment, not those parts which are very pretty already."

A review of the Greater Brighton Structure Plan

Two months later in a review of the 'Greater Brighton Structure Plan' a similar point was made:

"...the basic pattern is a series of parallel streets at right angles to the sea often climbing, with townscapes enlivened by bow windows and the frequent punctuation of buildings such as churches. Here and there are unexpected intimate spaces or sudden glimpses of the sea from higher ground. The general feeling is of close knit, medium-scale urbanity."

Article on 'Brighton beautiful'

A longer article in September 1974 goes into more North Laine detail, although it should be remembered that that term for the district was not then in use. The piece 'Brighton beautiful' noted:

"An area of great opportunity is that between Church and Trafalgar Streets south east of the station which, with its grand late Victorian arch roofed shed, is currently threatened with destruction. This is simply a grid of streets, some of which are still residential (and mostly much improved lately); others contain small varied shops, everyday and specialised; others again are partly cleared and half-derelict. Planning blight hangs over parts of this area because of a road proposal and a civic redevelopment scheme, but the first has been abandoned and the second shelved. There is a splendid opportunity in this area for combining conservation and rehabilitation with partial renewal, putting new housing in the traditional Brighton pattern on the cleared sites. A recent refusal of planning permission for the replacement of Kensington Gardens, a pedestrian street noted for the colourful variety of its shopping, with another version of Churchill square is encouraging."

Lloyd suggested a scheme of action for areas such as the North Laine and his sequence of change will be familiar to those with more than a passing acquaintance with this area:

"First take off the pressure for large scale development by directing them elsewhere, though not necessarily far away. Secondly, encourage as much residential reconversion, infilling or rehabilitation as possible particularly in the floors above remaining shops where this can be done. Thirdly, encourage the type of small scale shopping which is compatible with a historical environment. Antiques and boutiques of various types and grades are obviously normally suitable, so are bookshops, small restaurants and quality food shops. But too many of these types of shops can give too rarefied an environment and they can well be interspersed with other types of specialist shops such as those catering for hobbies, do-it-yourself, faddish foods and the like, which because of rental pressures, either cannot get into, or are squeezed out of redeveloped central areas, and have to look for just the sort of small 'fringe' premises which planners tend to zone away elsewhere, but which can be retained in historic streets where large scale redevelopment is precluded. And of course there should desirably be a sprinkling of down to earth sweet shops, newsagents or small greengroceries catering for the residents and visitors."

The Wilson-Wommersley Plan

Some idea of what was planned for this area may be gained by a brief scan of the 'Brighton Central Area Study". This grim tome published in its final form in October 1972 had the less than stimulating subtitle 'The Wilson-Wommersley Plan'. Amongst a raft of proposals, any one of which would have devastated the central area, there was the plan to demolish 130 houses in Kemp Street, Foundry Street, Queen's Gardens and Tichborne Street. Jubilee Street was to lose 21 properties and a further 59 in Windsor Street, King Street and Bond Street (including my ancestral home at 18 Bond St!).This was to facilitate the building of a stilted highway that would carry the Brighton bound A23 traffic west of the Valley Gardens to a huge car park in the area north of North Street. Ken Fines' excellent article goes into this in fine and well-informed detail and is recommended reading.

Poor condition of the North Road area

The proposal came at a time when the planners considered the 'North Road area' as a district where "the interior of the area is now in poor condition" and the idea of redevelopment of 'blighted' inner city areas was established in many planners' minds. However it was this very area of low cost housing giving access to major bus and rail routes, with a distinctive visual townscape, that had caused the population to change in a subtle way. It was the earliest stage of what later would come to be known as 'gentrification' and it was the steady influx of new residents that was in part to lead to the establishment of a residents' action group, the Central Brighton Community Association and its organ the North Road Runner (as they were then called). The rest is history.


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 192, May/June 2008]

This page was added on 18/06/2008.

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