Between Brighton in the east and Littlehampton in the west lies an almost continuous urban area with a population of some 650,000 people. No more than 2 miles deep, the built-up area is confined between the sea to the south and the South Downs to the north – a topographical bar to expansion long before the designation of the South Downs National Park a decade ago. Trapped within these rigid constraints, the area is unable to meet its housing needs, adding to the considerable pressures on districts to the north of the Downs and leading the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to recognise that the shortage of housing and high house prices are a bar to economic growth.
It’s with this context that I visited the south coast in a chilly, late November.
Shoreham Harbour and Worthing
First up, was a visit to Shoreham Harbour and Worthing, seeing proposals for the regeneration of these coastal towns. Shoreham Harbour is a massive regeneration project, capable in due course of delivering mixed-use developments including at least 1,400 new homes but requiring important interventions by Adur and Worthing Councils as well as in Brighton and Hove City. Essential infrastructure includes enhanced and reinforced flood protection works and new river crossings: a first pedestrian cycle bridge is in place with a second planned, enabling a circular route for visitors as well as linking communities across the River Adur. The release also requires interventions to negotiate the acquisition of sites and secure the relocation or removal of existing uses that stand in the way.
In Worthing, I was shown a number of key regeneration opportunities within the town centre. At Union Place, the Council is in the process of completing land assembly and site clearance, backed by LEP money, to deliver new homes with added benefits in improved townscape. At Grafton, a 1970s multi-storey car park stands between the main shopping area and the seafront. New homes, markedly enhanced design and a clear link to the seafront are just some of the benefits the redevelopment can deliver.
As in other coastal towns such as Whitley Bay in the North East and Whitehaven in the North West, delivery is important to provide confidence to the communities. New developments take time to emerge for a host of practical and market reasons and public realm enhancements can offer short-term wins. But much of the public realm is highway land and planners frequently find themselves in tricky negotiations with engineering colleagues to secure the best outcomes.
Hayling Island and Portsmouth
Coastal communities have special characters, especially where they are on peninsulas or islands. At Hayling Island, South Coast Young Planners and I saw planned changes to seashore facilities. Money is tight and funding relies on securing value from the release of Council-owned sites which are in challenging locations facing issues of coastal erosion, flood risk and sensitive habitats. Great care is needed to carry the support of the community.
At Portsmouth, impressive regeneration proposals are continuing apace. City planners and regeneration teams were proud to show me their far-sighted vision for Tipner West, a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to deliver a major new housing and employment area on reclaimed land at the western entrance to the city. Offering the prospect of over 4,000 homes and a 100,000 sq m marine employment campus, the scheme should deliver a highly sustainable development within close cycle and bus access to the city centre. The aim is to enable a car-free development, a potentially important element of Portsmouth’s contribution to the zero net carbon target.
South Downs National Park
From the coast, attention then turned to the National Park to the north. Fresh from winning an RTPI South East Award for Planning Excellence for its newly-adopted Local Plan, the National Park Authority was keen to show the role that Neighbourhood Plans can play in meeting their planning objectives. Petworth Town Council were the winners of the regional award for their Neighbourhood Plan in 2018.
All was not well – ‘excrutiating’ was the Neighbourhood Plan team’s description of their experience. It was a straightforward and logical process, they told me, ably assisted by planning consultants Nexus. However, it took considerable time and effort to ensure that the community was fully engaged. With only 18 representations at the Examination stage, the Plan progressed well. But then came the problem: the first allocated site to come to planning application following the completion of the Plan led to the approval of a scheme for greater housing numbers, scale and massing than provided for in the allocation, leaving the team feeling that the Plan had been ignored.
As planners, we need to ensure that communities entering into neighbourhood plans processes are clearly advised on the status and use of the plans once completed. It is to be hoped that future schemes will pay closer attention to the Petworth Neighbourhood Plan, particularly now the adoption of the National Park Local Plan provides complete statutory plan coverage for the town. Work is needed to regain the confidence of the community, however.
Nithurst Farm and the King Edward VII Estate
Winning awards is becoming a feature of the South Downs National Park –rewarding some courageous decision-making. At Nithurst Farm, a new house has replaced an earlier farm cottage and occupies a dramatic setting within the Downs. The house has already won an RIBA Award and garnered extensive press coverage. Owner and architect Adam Richards kindly showed me around his fine new home of which he is rightly proud.
Finally, I was taken to see the King Edward VII Estate. This major development of over 200 homes centres around a Grade II* listed, former TB sanatorium. New houses of high quality design are set in the grounds of the former hospital, funding the magnificent restoration of the listed buildings and additionally providing funding for affordable housing, a new transport link to nearby Midhurst and other infrastructure improvements. The scale of the enabling development is impressive in any circumstances but particularly in a national park. It is a credit to the vision of the SDNPA’s planners and members that such a comprehensive approach has been taken to putting the estate into good heart for the long term.
Throughout the year I have seen communities meeting challenges in the less-visited parts of the RTPI nations and regions. Everywhere, I have heard tales of challenges, resource shortages and difficulties in planning processes. But above all, I’ve seen planners backed by visionary leaders achieving amazing outcomes for their towns, cities, villages and countryside. The South East is no exception with great planning creating great places.