Consideration of locals was minimal in Lewes former Magistrates’ Court site decision

Now that planning consent has been given for the redevelopment of the Courts site in Lewes for a Premier Inn plus retail units, it is as well to consider how this all came about.

Firstly, it has to be said that the demolition of the Courts was accepted in principle with apparently little consideration of its potential for conversion to much needed local uses of a low-impact environmentally, which then enabled a process of design to commence, to promote and accommodate the above redevelopment.

Why did this happen? It happened because the developer had lost no time in securing ownership of the site from the owners, provisional only on securing planning permission.

This had the effect of virtually sterilising the site for redevelopment purposes. Whatever one might think about retention of the building, the local amenity groups contesting this process on behalf of the great many objectors to its loss were engaged in an unequal and heavily-loaded struggle almost from the outset.

For this, I feel they are to be praised for their conscientious pursuit of an outcome which increasingly became unachievable, rather than dismissed as futile and unrealistic. We surely need more of this in Lewes, when developer pressures present worrying challenges to the historic environment, rather than less. In the event, however, commercial forces won the day, and it became a matter of simply accommodating the redevelopment via a design improvement procedure alone. No comment.

Why did the relevant Planning Authority (the South Downs National Park) not do more to prevent this? For the very same reasons as above, plus their self-abrogation from defending even Conservation Area buildings from the attentions of developers, admitted by their Director of Planning at a thoroughly unsatisfactory planning committee meeting which finally approved the redevelopment in December. One is thereby left with the feeling that only the achievement of a high standard of design for redevelopment proposals is of any interest or importance, as against loss of a landmark building which could have been saved and adapted for prime locally-needed uses, eg residential, a somewhat disturbing feeling in truth.

Perhaps the Friends of Lewes have now recognised this and responded to it, via the “buildings at risk” exercise they have now embarked upon.

Let us hope that this will ease the discontent that still lingers over the threatened destruction of the Magistrates’ Courts and the compromise of the public car park, something which will undoubtedly haunt us all in the future, but which has been lightly dismissed as of little concern. One cannot escape the feeling also that had the district council not had to defer to the National Park Authority as to which body should deal with major planning applications, but had been able to bring its own well-informed abilities to bear on the matter, there might have been a rather different outcome.

In either case, the local amenity society, the Friends of Lewes, would have had an important role to play, but subject to an overriding local direction and control. As against being left effectively free to play the pivotal role in the whole affair, however well the final design form was enabled to be, upon which opinions vary. For this we have to thank the Localism Act which has emasculated further the traditional role of local authorities, assisted here by a misguided zeal for Lewes to be included in the South Downs National Park thus losing much of its previous planning autonomy. The list goes on ...

Michael Parfect