TV presenter David Dimbleby hosted a packed public meeting at Lewes Town Hall where plans for the future of the North Street Quarter dominated the debate.
Around 500 people attended Tuesday night’s event organised by Lewes Phoenix Rising, a community development company looking to put forward an alternative scheme to Lewes District Council and developer Santon’s plans to demolish the existing buildings and replace them with 415 homes and a mix of commercial and light industrial space.
Echoing many questions from the audience about the special character of the town and how it would be affected if Santon’s scheme went ahead, panellist Andrew Simpson, co-founder of LPR, said that the developer’s local representative had made ‘little effort to understand what this town requires’, and added: “You do not destroy what you have already got, you build on it.”
Santon and Lewes District Council’s leadership both declined invites to attend. But chair of LDC and independent Ruth O’Keeffe, who received the loudest cheer of the night, did take part as one of the panellists, but said she would attempt to answer all the questions by simply quoting from LDC’s core strategy.
She explained how she had received emails effectively telling her not to attend as it would not be compatible with her position as the council’s ambassador.
A spokesperson for Santon explained how since the joint planning application with LDC was pending it ‘would be legally and professionally inappropriate and contrary to planning process’ to draw plans into a public debate at this stage.
Already businesses are staring at eviction. Ian Freeston, who is one of a number of artists on the Phoenix Estate, told the meeting their lease at Unit 10 was up at the end of the month.
The LPR plan involves renovating not demolishing the buildings to provide affordable workspace.
The University of Sussex’s Raphie Kaplinsky, who has been advising on the regeneration of Newhaven, argued that business rents would be ‘hopelessly unacceptable’ to support a ‘nascent creative cluster which is the wellspring of Lewes’ future’ if Santon’s plans went ahead.
Jeremy Leggett, chief executive of Action in Rural Sussex, explained that Lewes was not going to escape the ripple effect a massive rise in London house prices was having on most of the South East, and described the whole planning system as ‘cracking and broken’.
Mr Simpson said that they did not want to become a ‘clone town’ and their scheme wanted to stop it becoming a ‘middle class enclave of wealthy people who can spend £1m on a house’.
Debbie Twitchen, of Tenants of Lewes District, described how even some affordable housing, such as that set at 80 per cent of the market rent was out of the range of people on a ‘normal wage’ in the town.
Meanwhile Paul Zara, an architect working with LDC to redevelop 49 sites across the district, described the Government’s Right to Buy scheme as ‘absolutely appalling whatever you think of the council’.
Some attendees directed their anger at the South Downs National Park Authority, whose planning committee will determine any planning applications for the North Street Quarter, over the level of publicity the current consultation on its local plan has received.
It was also explained that Lewes town did not have a representative on that planning committee, although Southease and Ditchling did.
Mr Leggett told the audience that since the SDNPA’s objective was to conserve the landscape they were looking to the largest settlements in the national park and were trying to ‘pack too much open market housing into Lewes and Petersfield’.
Attendees were urged to comment on the SDNPA’s local plan and get involved in the preparation of a neighbourhood plan for Lewes.
To comment on the SDNPA’s consultation visit www.southdowns.gov.uk
For information on Lewes’ neighbourhood plan visit www.lewes4all.uk
Don’t miss out on all the latest breaking news where you live.
Here are four ways you can be sure you’ll be amongst the first to know what’s going on.
1) Make our website your homepage at www.sussexexpress.co.uk/
2) Like our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Sussex-Express/
3) Follow us on Twitter @sussex_express
4) Register with us by clicking on ‘sign in’ (top right corner). You can then receive our daily newsletter AND add your point of view to stories that you read here.
And do share with your family and friends - so they don’t miss out!
The Sussex Express - always the first with your local news.
Be part of it.