With past failed bids to redevelop the King Alfred Leisure Centre, and a two-year period of quiet since the latest plan was revealed, it’s no surprise that there are fears for the future of the project.
But in an exclusive interview with the Brighton & Hove Independent, the developers of the King Alfred have moved to reassure residents that they are here to stay, despite delays to the scheme.
Crest Nicholson and the Starr Trust unveiled plans for the run-down leisure centre almost two years ago for a £40 million sports centre and 560 homes, and said this plan remains unchanged.
Scott Black, managing director of Crest Nicholson Regeneration, admitted that rising costs and uncertainty around Brexit meant there was a funding gap for the £200m project.
To address this, developers have submitted a £15.2m bid to the government from the Housing Infrastructure Fund aimed at ‘bridging funding gaps in projects of marginal viability’.
If the funds are released, Mr Black said he expected construction to begin by January 2020, with the leisure centre open by summer 2022 — two years later than initially hoped. Completion of the entire scheme is now expected by 2025.
Rob Starr of the Starr Trust said: “Why has it taken so long? If you don’t get the foundations right it will collapse. All the work that Scott and his team at Crest have been doing, on the numbers, on the designs, on the legals, are being done now, so when we go to site, we deliver it.”
He said he was ‘committed to regenerating this important site’ and it was ‘truly an exciting time for our city’.
Crest Nicholson and the Starr Trust admitted there were ‘bumps in the road’, but said this was ‘normal for a project of this size’.
Mr Starr said: “The city has seen this fail before, which is why we’re taking our time and doing it right.”
He was referring to the failed Frank Gehry scheme for he site, which fell apart after the 2008 financial crash.
Explaining the need for the £15.2m government funding, Mr Black said: “So what has changed since the bid? Well the passage of time. Inflationary pressures have increased the overall build costs which has created a bit of an issue.
“Now often with these big projects you get a corresponding bump in sales prices that covers that off. But of course because of Brexit and general market sentiment we haven’t experienced that, so as a result, in our minds, a very small gap has opened up.
“In truth we are about £15m adrift with about £12m coming through inflation, leaving about another £3m. And that £3m to be frank and honest is principally due to unknowns at the time of the bid.
“We don’t embark on these projects lightly. We remain very committed to the project. Obviously we can’t progress with a project that doesn’t stack up, that isn’t viable, which is why we’ve made the application for the £15m, and while it is a pretty small figure in the scheme of things, ultimately we can’t have a £15m hit to the bottom line.”
Mr Starr argued that bidding for the government cash was a positive, as it bring extra money into the city.
He said: “Someone on the street would say why are they borrowing that money its ridiculous, it’s all in their profits. Utter tosh and nonsense. Crest have reduced their profits to get this through, the £15m helps us deliver it with the affordable housing which the city said they want. We haven’t added hundreds of new flats which people said we’ve done, we’ve kept to the bid.
“Let’s try and be positive about this, because it’s a great thing.”
Cllr Warren Morgan, leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, said: “With rising building costs, the situation at the King Alfred is not unique, which is why the government is making available such marginal viability funding.
“We are fully supportive of Crest Nicholson in its desire to submit the strongest possible bid to maximise our chances of much-needed housing and a new sports centre for the city.”
On the need to redevelop the site, Mr Starr said: “I’ve lived in Brighton all my life, born and bred here, and I was using the King Alfred as a kid. I’ve watched it over the years and it’s massively supported. Over the years you’ve seen it go down in standards, and something needs to be done.”
He argued the community-focus of the bid was what won it for them: “When you walk down the seafront on a windy day, do you want to see the lights of Vegas or do you want to see Brighton, and do you want to see excitement and community engagement?”
Mr Black said with the results of the funding bid revealed in January, he hoped a public consultation would take place next spring, with a planning application submitted in December.
“The longer it takes the longer the money’s out the less money we make,” he said. “There’s a commercial imperative to get in with it on our side, But we’ve got to do it at the right pace, there’s no point in rushing these things and getting it wrong.”
What will the scheme deliver?
The project would see the existing building demolished, and replaced with a £40 million sports centre, and four tower blocks — the highest standing at 18 storeys — made up of 560 flats (20 per cent would be affordable).
The new centre is set to include three swimming pools; a 25m eight-lane competition pool, a smaller teaching pool, plus a leisure pool.
There will be a sports hall with badminton courts, a 120-station gym, a crèche, gymnastics centre, three-rink indoor bowls, dedicated martial arts area, quiet studio, sauna and a café.
There would be community arts and educational space and a base for charity The Starr Trust.
Developers will also create a new public square.
The council is set to put £8 million towards the sports facility, paid for by the ‘much-improved financial performance’ of the new centre. The remainder of the cost of the centre would be paid for by the development of the 560 homes, developers said.