The first word on the first piece of correspondence was "Confidential".
As two companies submit their ideas for King Alfred Leisure Centre, Robert Nemeth wants the people of Brighton and Hove to be more involved
The first word on the first piece of correspondence I received concerning King Alfred Leisure Centre after getting elected in May was "Confidential".
Having spent the past five years on the outside, as a member of the public campaigning for a new sports centre, I wasn’t surprised.
As a member of the King Alfred Project Board, I will soon be looking at plans that will change the look of Hove, hopefully for the better, forever. The implications are profound, yet the general public is hardly aware of the issue.
Today (Friday) is the submission date of plans from two different development teams – Crest Nicholson Regeneration (working closely with Rob Starr, a local businessman and co-founder of the Starr Trust charity) and French builder Bouygues Development – who will be going head to head for the contract following several years of work by Brighton and Hove City Council in reviving the project.
In a way, this latest redevelopment attempt picks up from a point somewhere in the middle of 2002, before Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, and Wilkinson Eyre battled it out.
I worked with Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove at the time, to "persuade" the city council to revive the project. It was Geoffrey Bowden, a Green councillor and chair of the economic development and culture committee, who got things moving from within. A project board was formed so that all parties had a significant stake in this most significant of projects.
The project is set to be the largest ever single-site development in Hove. At a cost not too far short of £400 million, with a sports centre and associated underground parking costing in the region of £40 million, it’s easy to see why. It will have a bigger impact on the seafront than the 1871 development of the West Brighton Estate of Grand Avenue and the surrounding streets, and everything built since. Indeed, it may well have more impact on the seafront than Adelaide Crescent or even Brunswick Square that were built nearly 200 years ago. It is big news.
As a committed conservationist, with seven years on the Regency Society’s committee under my belt, am I worried?
At this point, having not actually seen the plans anyway, I am not worried at all. I am in fact excited - just as I might have been prior to Brunswick Square and the other grand compositions being built. But, as a member of the project board, I am sworn to secrecy so can’t discuss what has actually been proposed.
By contrast, pictures of the 2003 schemes made front-page news when Gehry, Rogers, and Wilkinson Eyre battled it out.
While I look forward to things moving ahead, I obviously do have concerns about the way in which the public has been involved (or not, as the case may be) - even if the legalities of the process have been handled meticulously.
The word consultation itself makes me shudder, because it suggests a corporate exercise. In the case of the King Alfred, no council-style "consultation" was even carried out, let alone any actual conversations with users, neighbours, or amenity societies.
The swimmers, bowlers, weight-lifters, boxers, and dancers feel particularly aggrieved. Having spent many a Friday night chatting with members of the Shiverers Swimming Club (and one particularly memorable night with the dancers!), I understand their frustrations well.
A community campaign with signatures of petitions into the thousands calling for a flexible 50-metre pool has been treated most shoddily indeed, as has a push from the bowlers for a six-rink facility (which is what they have now). This bothers me a lot.
So what happens next?
Each of the political parties is taking the matter incredibly seriously. Labour’s representative on the board is the leader of the council, Councillor Warren Morgan. The Greens’ representative is Councillor Tom Druitt, whom many know as the man behind the Big Lemon Bus company - and also as somebody who isn’t afraid to get out of the office and speak to the man or woman on the street (or on the bus). This may well be key when it comes to getting the message out under the constraints of the board’s pre-agreed parameters.
Cllrs Morgan and Druitt, and I, hope to see the plans as a matter of urgency, after which point a series of key officers - experts in their respective fields (including sports, planning, law and housing) - will be scoring according to strict criteria. Weighted marks will be awarded, leading to a recommendation to the project board before Christmas. The board will then make a recommendation to the council's powerful policy and resources committee in, it is hoped, the new year. I will be working closely with my party’s leader, Cllr Geoffrey Theobald, and the rest of the Conservative Group, at all times.
A planning application will be prepared and submitted late next year. The new planning committee is feisty and will no doubt have strong opinions. The hope, though, is that spades will be in the ground during 2017 with a planned completion before 2020.
I take my responsibilities as a project board member incredibly seriously, but I will also - ever mindful that I have higher responsibilities to my residents - be pushing for greater transparency and public involvement at every step of the way.
If you have any opinions whatsoever on the issue, I hope that it goes without saying that I would be delighted to receive them.
A brief history of King Alfred
Medina Baths opened on Hove seafront in September 1894 and incorporated a laundry. Water came from the sea. They re-opened as Hove Baths in July 1918, following purchase by Hove Council.
Hove Marina, another saltwater facility, was completed in 1939 on the seafront nearby as replacement for Hove Baths, but it was immediately requisitioned by the Admiralty following the outbreak of war. It was renamed HMS King Alfred and the name stuck. Visitors during the war included Vera Lynn, Noel Coward, and King George VI. Medina Baths closed during the 1940s.
An extension to King Alfred with new pools - no longer salty - was opened in November 1982. Three brightly-coloured water slides were opened in August 1986.
The late 1980s and late 1990s saw failed schemes from the developer Citygrove, which included various cinemas, ten-pin bowling alleys and casinos. 2003 saw the selection of the Frank Gehry scheme in preference to those by Richard Rogers and Wilkinson Eyre.
Councillor Robert Nemeth, a Conservative councillor for Wish, was drawn to politics to pursue his interest in architecture and planning. He writes a weekly Building Opinions column in Latest Homes magazine. For more information, visit: www.buildingopinions.com. To contact Cllr Nemeth, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.