28 May 2024

Nimby Watch: Brighton’s pro-housing crisis campaigners


For this week’s edition of ‘Nimby Watch’, Jonn Elledge takes us to Brighton & Hove, where local activists and councillors care more about a disused gasworks than building new homes. You can read the rest of the series here.

Where are we off to this week? Bloody Labour Party!

That is not, in fact, a place. Well, no. But this avowedly non-partisan column has been getting a certain amount of criticism for the crime of implying that members of a certain other party are perhaps more interested in protecting trees and changing nothing than they are, for example, in saving the planet. And so, just to make sure it is absolutely clear that this column is non-partisan, I am marking the start of the short campaign by criticising some Labour nimbyism. 

So, for the avoidance of doubt: bloody Labour Party.

Got that out of your system now, have you? Not remotely, no. Anyway: this week we are off to the booming seaside city of Brighton & Hove, capital of the Sussex riviera.

What’s there now? A derelict gas works, which takes up two hectares, thus making it exactly the sort of brownfield site we’re always told we should build on first, before imperilling even a single blade of grass. The site is currently used for storage, parking and light industry.

So who wants to build what? In 2022, the current owners – National Grid and developer St William, a part of the Berkeley Group – proposed a mixed use scheme including 565 homes. That was knocked back for reasons including insufficient green space and too many tall buildings. So, the plan was redesigned, knocked back again, redesigned again and resubmitted in January. The new version contains slightly shorter towers and a reduction to 495 homes, plus more greenery and a bunch of commercial space.

Then the plan went out to consultation, where it received – this is a good bit – 1,700 objections from members of the public, plus groups including the Brighton and Hove Heritage Commission, the Regency Squares Community, the Kemp Town Society, the Brighton Society and the Kingscliff Society.

Blimey. People really love that disused gas works. One of the 58 statements of support the plan received presciently predicted that ‘the Nimby boomerati will say ‘it’s not enough’, as well as providing a range of completely new nonsense issues they have’. Anyway, despite the opposition, council officers recommended that they were ‘minded to grant’ permission, subject to certain conditions, and sent it up to the planning committee. 

Can you guess what happened next?

Oh. Oh no. Yep. Of the 10 councillors on that committee, seven – one Tory, one independent, five Labour – voted against the scheme. Just three – two Labour, one Green – voted in favour. So yes, regarding this specific example I am honour bound to say: Well done, Greens! Bloody Labour party.

Pro-housing crisis campaigners, incidentally, described their victory as a ‘David vs Goliath’ battle. One headline said they wept ‘tears of joy’. Because, let’s not forget, a disused gasworks was no longer being threatened by housing. 

What exactly was everyone’s problem with the scheme? For one thing, there’s the usual ‘this will change the character of the area’ stuff – one Labour councillor said the plan would ‘turn Kemp Town into Gotham City’. But as ever, our options are either densification, which risks changing the character of some lucky areas; extending the footprints of our cities and changing the character of some countryside; or accepting permanent housing shortage. Since the same people tend to object to both plans A and B, we can draw our own conclusions.

Another more specific issue is that the land is probably not in great nick because of the aforementioned gas works. A spokesman for the campaign group Action on Gasworks Housing Affordability, Safety and Transparency – AGHAST, which is, to be fair, a great acronym – said, ‘When you dig this whole contamination up it goes out into the air. Gases escape.’ 

That does sound worrying. But again, if your housing policy is brownfield first – something which almost everyone agrees it should be – these are the risks you take

Other councillors seem to have rejected the scheme mainly because there was no legal guarantee it would include affordable housing. It should have some – 20% for rent, 20% in shared ownership – but this is dependent on a grant from Homes England, and is not at this stage guaranteed. The developer says it can’t simply fund that element itself, because it’s already facing squeezed profit margins as it’s got all that contamination to clean up.

That’s very convenient. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Again, this is a direct result of the decision to prioritise industrial brownfield. The alternative here is to leave it derelict in the hope of a miracle. 

Which does, to be fair, seem to be the council’s plan.

All this happened literally the week that Rishi Sunak called an election. As the country prepares to go to the polls we are faced by the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council! – rejecting plans for new housing on a derelict site in the middle of a city, because they are not quite perfect.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is promising big things on planning reform. Whether that will hold in the face of campaigns like the one in Brighton, though, remains to be seen. The way things are going, the opposition it will need to worry about won’t be the Tories. It’ll be its own local councillors.

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.