Gasworks development : BHCC Failures Chapter 2 – The attempt to extend the Marina Tall Buildings zone on to the Gasworks site
This is the second article in our series of ten Chapters on BHCC failures relating to the Gasworks development. Read on…….
Did the Council surreptitiously and deliberately ditch Planning policy to bolster developer interests?
It would appear so. As part of the draft Urban Design Framework SPD introduced for public consultation in October 2020, it was proposed that the Brighton Gasworks site was considered as having “potential” for tall buildings. This had not been included in the approved City Plan in 2016.. Policy had changed. Why?
The Gasworks site is on the high ground above the Marina. In 2004 the Council approved the Tall Buildings Study which defined areas of the city which were considered to be suitable for tall buildings.
The Marina was one of those areas. This is what it said: (Extract from SPG15 – Tall Buildings Study 2004)
Para 8.3 Marina
8.3.1 The Marina, mainly because of the topography and the existence of a district shopping centre in the complex, has potential as a node for tall buildings. The marina has a number of special characteristics in terms of tall building opportunity. The cliffs to the north of the area are able to mitigate, up to a certain height, the visual impact of tall development on surrounding areas. Its seafront location would increase the amenity for residents and occupiers of any tall building by providing links to extensive open spaces. The existence of a district shopping centre within the marina, and the opportunity to ‘bookend’ the edge of the city, contribute to the tall building opportunity within this area.
8.3.2 The Marina is a node with particular sensitivities of building due to the relative proximity to Kemp Town and housing on the adjacent hillside which provide challenges for designers. Tall buildings in this node will need to have regard to their visual impact on the residential areas to the north of the cliffs and their overall composition when viewed along the coast. Proposals for this area should seek to resolve transport issues, as this node has the least developed transport services and infrastructure of all the areas.
The Gasworks site was not mentioned. There were no maps defining the node but it was generally understood to apply to the areas at the base of the cliffs behind the Marina.
This interpretation lasted through to the formalisation of the City Plan Part 1 in 2016.
This shows the gasworks site included in Development Area 2 (DA2).
But nowhere does it mention it falls within a Tall Buildings area.
Below is the map showing the development area boundary. Area 2 is the Gasworks site.
Para 3.11 of the City Plan states:
“The development area covered by this policy extends beyond the Marina encompassing other key sites in the vicinity, including the former Gas Works site to the north and the Black Rock site to the west of the Marina. These sites have been incorporated within the development area because they are likely to be affected by any future development of the Marina and vice versa, particularly in terms of traffic generation and impact on nearby junctions.”
It goes on to discuss the Gasworks site:
“The Gas Works site has been identified for approximately 2,000 sq m of business floor space to the north of the site, a minimum of 85 residential units and some ancillary retail development. The key criteria against which proposals will be assessed are:
a) Employment provision – development should provide an appropriate mix of employment floor space of varying sizes that cater for business uses ranging from office to light industrial, including small starter units or managed units (Use Classes B1);
b) Housing mix – development should provide for a mix of dwelling type, tenure and size to cater for a range of housing requirements and to improve housing choice;
c) Design – development proposals should demonstrate high quality design which positively contribute to the varying character of existing residential and commercial properties in the vicinity to create a cohesive and attractive urban environment;
d) Connectivity – development proposals should enhance existing links between the Marina, Gas Works and Black Rock and contribute to the creation of safe links and coherent integration between the Gas Works site and the surrounding neighbourhood;
e) Land contamination – development proposals should undertake and submit to the Local Planning Authority evidence to support uses where possible land contamination and remediation may prohibit the delivery of the above uses and amounts;
f) The developer will enter into a training place agreement to secure training for local people.”
No mention of Tall Buildings. With only 85 new dwellings allocated, why would it?
In 2018 an Issues & Options Paper Early Stakeholder Consultation on the Urban Design Framework June – July 2018 was put together. This was the first draft Urban Design Framework paper issued for public consultation. In Appendix 3 – Tall Building areas, it states in relation to the Marina:
“Brighton Marina – is a node (place where activity and routes are concentrated) limited to the boundaries formed by the eastern and western breakwaters and the undercliff walk to the north.”
That’s pretty clear. The Marina Area was limited to the lower area at the foot of the cliffs. And by extension, so was the Tall Buildings Area. That was in July 2018.
Then on 23 October 2020 the draft Urban Design Framework SPD (Supplementary Planning Document) was issued for public consultation.
Things had changed. It included the map shown below.
The Gasworks site was now included in a shaded area entitled “Indicative area with potential for tall buildings”.
But it also said: “Building heights will be largely determined by visual impact on views from the hillsides to the north and and from historic Kemp Town Enclosures”.
You would have thought that any rational interpretation of that policy statement would severely restrict building heights on the Gasworks site. It is after all on the clifftop above the Marina in a very prominent and visible position.
It is also close to the Grade 1 Listed Kemp Town Estate including Arundel Terrace, Lewes Crescent and Chichester Terrace and other listed buildings such as the Grade II French Convalescent Home and the Grade II Temple at Black Rock.
The locally listed Marine Gate is immediately to the east of the Gasworks.
Attached to the bottom of the map is this:
The first statement reinforces the points made above about the adjacent heritage assets, the relationships with the residential areas to the north of the cliffs (ie around the Gasworks site), and the visual effect of development proposals when viewed along the coast.
Would tall buildings be appropriate for the Gasworks site given the restraints implied by those considerations? We think not.
So what changed between July 2018 and October 2020?
Why did the Gasworks site suddenly become an area with the “potential for tall buildings”?
The most significant change was the Berkeley Group’s entry on to the scene in June 2020 when it published a proposal for a conglomeration of massive buildings up to 15 storeys high and up to 700 new dwelling units.
But the Council Planning Dept must have known and had discussions with the Berkeley Group long before then.
Was there a connection between these two events?
If there was a connection – that could be interpreted to mean that Council planning policy in relation to Tall Building areas was deliberately and surreptitiously changed to the direct advantage of the developer, the Berkeley Group. And previous planning policies were ditched in order to achieve that.
So much for the Council’s fine words about transparency and the value of community involvement in the planning process.
The Council’s Head of Planning stated at the time (February 2021), that the Gasworks site was within an area which Council policy states is suitable for Tall Buildings.
Really? – in spite of all the constraints referred to above?
In terms of legally constituted Council policy, her statement was incorrect anyway because the Urban Design Framework SPD had not at that stage been approved by the Council. It was still a draft. It wasn’t approved until June 2021.
And her interpretation of her own planning policy document is biased in favour of a massively inappropriate development proposal which had just been proposed for a second round of public consultation.
We commented at the time:
“This development site is not in a Tall Buildings area or corridor defined in the 2004 Tall Buildings Study or the current City Plan. It is unsuitable for tall buildings because of its situation on a cliff, proximity to heritage assets and the relative height of all other buildings around it.
The Council wants effectively to create a new Tall Buildings Area specifically for the Gasworks site through a new SPD and, we suspect, specifically to give this proposal some form of justification. If approved it would set a terrible precedent for other areas of the city, where policy could be overturned to fit with a developer’s needs.”
We asked the Council’s Legal Advisor whether the City Plan could be changed by the Draft Urban Design Framework SPD – which was a subsidiary policy document and whether the UDF could over-ride the City Plan.
This was her reply:
“Further to your enquiry below I can confirm the following:-
- The draft SPD guidance has not been finalised;
- The draft SPD will be amended before it is finalised to ensure that there is no conflict with City Plan Part 1 (Policy CP12);
- This means that the Gas works site and land to the east will be removed from the draft SPD before it is finalised;
- The SPD is a guidance document only.
This confirmed our view that the proposal to extend the tall buildings zone on to the Gasworks site was not conforming to law or rules and would be removed from the draft UDF/SPD. That was good news.
But it raised two further questions:
1. Why did the Council even consider introducing an this measure into its draft planning policy document?
2. Why did it decide to do it in the middle of 2020 when the draft UDF document was published?
The answers may well have been related to the advent of the Berkeley Group at some time in 2019 with a proposal to develop the contaminated Gasworks site. Did Berkeley insist on developing the site with a conglomeration of tall buildings in return for a change in Council planning policy?
We don’t know. But we thought we should find out, so on Feb 8 2021 we sent the Council a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. The sorry saga of this story of delay and continuous Council obfuscation will be discussed in next week’s episode – Chapter 3.
However – the fact remains that a provision not conforming to law or rules should never have been introduced in the first place.
The aim of our FOI request was to find out how that happened.
Was the proposal to include the Gasworks site within the Marina Tall Buildings area introduced as part of the Urban Design Framework SPG discussed between the Council and the Berkeley/St William Group?
Was it realised by both parties that this would against the law or rules? And if not, why not?
Was that failure wilful or just incompetent?
Where all this left the Berkeley Group is not clear.
Was it a party to this deception?
What pressure did it bring to bear on the Council to allow tall buildings on the Gasworks site? Was financial viability discussed during the period leading up to the introduction of the draft UDF/SPG?
Or, because it had been led to believe by the Council that tall buildings would be allowed on the site and that planning approval was therefore likely, was it now too late to change the design proposals for several tall buildings on the Gasworks site?
Who was pushing who? Was the Council pushing Berkeley or was Berkeley pushing the Council?
The only way to find out the answers to all these questions was to make the Freedom of Information request referred to above.
Look out for next week’s instalment – Chapter 3: Council failure to respond to multiple Freedom of Information requests