North Laine: story of an outstanding conservation area

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

Proposed South Spine Road in the Wilson-Wommersley Plan

This would have been a flyover across what is now the North Laine

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'North Laine: story of an outstanding conservation area' page

Creation of the North Laine Community Association

By Ken Fines, Brighton Borough Planning Officer (1969-83); sadly died 24th March 2008

Preamble

I was really delighted when the editor of the North Laine Runner, newsletter of the North Laine Community Association, invited me to write up the fascinating story of the district to mark its 30th Anniversary [in 1976].  But why me? Well, in 1976 when I was Borough Planning Officer of Brighton, I successfully proposed that the long-threatened district, then known vaguely as the 'North Road area', be designated a conservation area and named North Laine after the old open field system.  Before long it was declared 'outstanding' by the Government for grant purposes.

Ever since then I have been delighted to remember this as a highlight of my long planning career (I retired in 1983).  I have been able to sustain this joy because of the success that the Association and the local traders have made of their opportunity. It goes to show that conservation - the preservation and enhancement of our heritage - can be a great success.

Growth of the motor vehicle

There was a rapid growth in the number of motor vehicles after the Second World War, particularly in the 1960s, and during this decade there was a flurry of activity in town planning in an attempt to deal with the phenomenon. There were two schools of thought:  some wanted to cater for the car to the fullest extent possible, seeing it as an economic benefit; others wanted to restrain its use in the interests of safety and the environment.

In 1965, Brighton County Borough Council (then a quite separate authority), East and West Sussex County Councils, and Hove Borough Council (in East Sussex) set up a team under the direction of Dr J I Whitehead to undertake a transportation/land use study for the urban area from Seaford to Lancing.

The Wilson and Womersley Report

However, in 1967 Brighton County Borough Council commissioned nationwide planning consultants, Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley, in cooperation with Drivers Jonas & Co, chartered surveyors, to prepare a plan for the town centre of Brighton and to consider other matters in the wider area in cooperation with Dr Whitehead's team.
Wilson and Womersley produced an Interim Plan in April 1968.  It clearly went for the option that favoured the car and its salient proposals were as follows:

1.     A new high capacity east-west road through the urban area, parallel tothe railway, from the Adur Bridge at Shoreham to the London Road near Preston Circus Brighton, and then on to Lewes Road.

2.     A box of roads enclosing the town centre of Brighton, with a western arm running from the above major road down the Brighton/Hove boundary to the seafront, and an eastern arm from another major junction down the back of the Valley Gardens to Edward Street.  From here the latter arm would continue eastward to connect with the coast road.

3.     Then, the most dramatic proposal of all  - a spine road running from the Preston Circus junction southwards, to the east of the railway land, to cut right through the heart of our (North Laine) neighbourhood, which would largely be redeveloped.  This road would give access to very large car parks to serve the station and the town centre. Amazingly, from Gloucester Road southwards the new road would be elevated, giving access at a high level to an elongated car park with 1600 spaces located south of Church Street: it would have slip roads running south from the Gloucester Road end. More dramatically, it has been referred to as a 'flyover'.

The land use plan with the spine road proposal showed only a comparatively narrow strip allocated for residential use, this being on the east side of the proposed road.  This would inevitably have been available for redevelopment.  In fact, reference is made to high-rise buildings up to 60-70 ft in the North Road area and up to 120 ft in an area around the western end of Trafalgar Street, thus continuing the mania for high-rise urban renewal that had characterised the post-war period, reaching a climax in the 1960s.  The rest of the area was mainly allocated for offices, public buildings and cultural uses. Needless to say, the consultant's Interim Plan caused much consternation and a Final Plan never saw the light of day.

The Greater Brighton Structure Plan

While all this was all going on, I was Assistant County Planning Officer in East Sussex, based in Lewes. As I was not directly involved, only on the fringe, I cannot recall all the reaction.  However, in the following year (1969) I was really thrown in at the deep end.  The Town and Country Planning Act of 1968 introduced a new type of development plan - the Structure Plan, intended to form a strategic framework for larger functional areas, within which detailed local plans would be prepared.

The councils of Brighton County Borough and the Counties of East and West Sussex decided to produce a joint structure plan for the coastal conurbation extending from Seaford to Lancing.  I successfully applied for the post of Director of the Brighton Urban Structure Plan Team, commencing work later in 1969. My excellent staff and I studied all aspects of the area, producing many survey reports for public comment. Then in November 1973 we published a draft Greater Brighton Structure Plan as part of our public participation programme.

Our strategy took the opposite line to that of the former consultants, Wilson and Womersley.  In essence it covered the following key elements:

1.It "favoured conservation rather than upward or outward growth".

2. It advocated restraint on private transport and the promotion of public transport.

3. It rejected a network of new major roads through the urban area and proposed an external distributor road (this became the present by-pass).

4. It recommended emphasis on the service centre function of the area.

In the following year (1974) came local government reorganisation.  Independent county boroughs were abolished, so Brighton became a borough within the County of East Sussex (ie with the same status that Hove already had). I successfully applied for the post of Borough Planning Officer of Brighton.  The new Borough Council promptly approved the draft structure plan as a basis for development control, whereas East Sussex County Council decided to subsume it into a structure plan to be prepared for the whole county.

My review of Brighton conservation areas, 1975-6

In 1975, in my new position (with another excellent team), I carried out a review of conservation areas in Brighton, and in March 1976 published a report for public comment.  The former County Borough Council had already designated 11 conservation areas since 1970. These included the Old Town, the fashionable Regency areas and the old village centres.  In my report I proposed extensions to 5 of these, having regard to their success (8 of them had been recognised as 'outstanding' by the government for grant purposes).

In 1971 the Council had set up a Conservation Area Advisory Committee to advise them on planning applications and other matters affecting these areas. It included representatives of 12 amenity societies.

My main proposals, however, involved the designation of 5 new large conservation areas, covering mainly attractive parts of Victorian Brighton that had been overshadowed by the earlier designated areas (which, incidentally, included the great majority of the town's 1800 'isted buildings' of special architectural and historic interest). The new areas were: North Laine, West Hill, Queen's Park, Round Hill and Preston (covering the park and a large residential area to the east and north).

After being well-received by the public (see below) the proposals were approved by the new Borough Council through their Planning Committee, under the Chairmanship of Cllr Joe Wakefield, and the new and extended conservation areas were formally designated early in 1977.

The North Laine Community Association and 30 years' success

While I was carrying out my review, however, a group of residents in the 'North Road Area' decided to create a "Central Brighton Community Association".  A first public meeting took place in Upper Gardner Street on 21st January 1976 and the association was duly formed.  The first formal meeting of a committee was held on 4th February 1976.  The Chairman was Jack Perkins of Gloucester Road; the Secretary was Anne McBrown of Tidy Street; and the Treasurer was William Jolly of Gloucester Road.  As well as the committee, 12 street representatives were also appointed, but these later formed the committee. The Association's first 'news sheet' was distributed at the end of January 1976 and was called the "North Road Runner".

The publication of my conservation report for public consideration was announced in the then Evening Argus on 3rd March 1976.  The new Association promptly entered into the spirit, with the street representatives undertaking a public opinion survey.

On 12th April 1976 I was able to give a talk (with slides) to a general meeting. According to issue No 3 of the news sheet: "Residents appeared to feel overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed conservation area that will cover us".

In May/June 1976 the Association duly changed its name to the North Laine Community Association. However, it was not until issue No 7 of the news sheet in April/May 1977, with formal designation of the conservation area, that it became the "North Laine Runner".

By the time of issue No 3 in June/July 1976, certain officers had changed.  The Chairman was now Dick Draper; and the Secretary, Kelvin MacDonald, whom I knew personally.  Remarkably, Jackie Fuller was a Street Representative and already typing articles for the news sheet.  She is, of course, editor of the Runner 30 years later [1976] and is now the longest serving activist of the NLCA.  The current officers are listed elsewhere on this website.  However, we must give due credit to all the officers and other activists over the past 30 years.  Perhaps I could just be remembered to those who honoured me with a tree planting ceremony a while back.

Over these thirty years [1976-2006] North Laine has gone from strength to strength.  The Association has created a thriving community, which has a more diverse structure than in days of yore now that the area has itself become fashionable in its own inimitable way.  It has also provided a valuable service in monitoring planning applications and other proposals.

North Laine Traders Association

One must also give credit to the North Laine Traders Association, which has overseen the change in the shopping pattern from mainly local convenience outlets to a unique range of small shops dealing particularly with fashion, arts and crafts and some really exotic trades.

Especially with its inviting eateries, it has a continental atmosphere that has led to the area being referred to as Brighton's 'Bohemian Quarter'.  In fact, to wend one's way through the shopping streets of North Laine from North Street (via its entrance, Bond Street) to Trafalgar Street, passing through that so delightful pedestrian way Kensington Gardens, is to experience one of the truly urban delights of our City.  On a Saturday morning one has a special highlight in visiting the old market of Upper Gardner Street in the very heart of North Laine.

Recently it has been claimed that the North Laine shops are under threat from rising rents and rates, online shopping, and competition from the supermarket chains. However, in a letter to The Argus (7 March 2006) Peter Stocker, Secretary of the Traders Association, stated that for each shop that is closing there are new traders waiting and paying premiums to trade in North Laine.  He believes that the area "will continue to thrive because it has the most interesting shops and the most unusual merchandise in the city".

Conclusion

I have confidence that the NLCA, the City Council and their planning officers, as well as the North Laine Traders Association, will ensure that the North Laine shops do continue to thrive. This outstanding conservation area is now so much a vital part of the City, not only for its citizens but also for visitors from far and wide.

It is very significant that David Lepper, Member of Parliament for the Brighton Pavilion constituency [in 1976] stated (The Argus, 7 March 7 2006) that "The North Laine and The Lanes are still two of the jewels of Brighton and the challenge is to make sure that the North Laine continues to keep its own individual mark and character".

I certainly go along all the way with David.  North Laine has what I have called"the rich texture of metropolitan life" - not only in its great variety of citizens, streets and houses, but also in its long-established pubs, workshops and old public buildings.

North Laine Community Association - many congratulations, and here's to the next thirty years!

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 180, May/June 2006]

This page was added on 17/06/2008.

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