Audit to review controversial Old Steine revamp plan
Concerns about a proposed revamp of the Aquarium roundabout and Old Steine are to be the subject of an audit.
The changes – part of a wider scheme known as the Valley Gardens project – have proved controversial, not least because of claims that consultation was flawed and councillors were not fully informed when they made key decisions.
Now a deeper look will be taken into the consultation process and the speed of progress relating to phase three of the Valley Gardens project.
The multimillion-pound scheme proposes replacing the Aquarium roundabout with a traffic light junction, and pushing all vehicles to the eastern side of Old Steine.
It also includes making Madeira Drive one way at its western end, pushing all traffic out through Duke’s Mound.
The area by the 1930s tram stops in front of the Royal Pavilion would become a new events space.
It has proved a controversial project with businesses and residents in the area threatening a legal challenge.
Conservative councillor Lee Wares wrote to Brighton and Hove City Council’s chief executive Geoff Raw to ask for the audit.
He said that the decision-making process was rushed as councillors believed that funding had been secured from the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) when it hadn’t.
Councillor Wares said that the third phase of the Valley Gardens project went outside the boundaries of the original location, taking in Duke’s Mound.
It also did not take into account the Waterfront Project Enabling Works, relating to the redevelopment of Black Rock.
Members of the Valley Gardens Forum – a group of residents and businesses – have raised concerns about the public consultation last autumn, which was also mentioned in Councillor Wares’s letter.
He said that the questionnaire appeared flawed and the report underplayed the fact that most people opposed removing the Aquarium roundabout.
Councillor Wares said: “I know in this room we have opposing personal and political differences over this project but I’m not here to argue about a design.
“I think we are all in agreement about the need to do something to improve the public realm, improve sustainable transport and active travel and to protect and enhance our local economy.
“My concern, however, is about how this project has developed and how we have got here.
“It is about the silent creep going way beyond the project brief and financial limits to try to make it work. It is about our population not being listened to and being refused the right to be consulted on issues such as Duke’s Mound.
“We talk a good game. Public participation, transparency, climate change emergencies, air quality, fiduciary competence, inclusiveness.
“Yet we have a project where we ignore the majority, we won’t review traffic displacement and its impact, we dramatically alter plans and won’t consult.
“We allow the project to cost more without revisiting the business case, we feed members with just enough information so that they reached the correct answer – whatever that is supposed to mean.
“We won’t consider all air quality and environment impacts.
“We are considering public forums, task and finish groups, citizen assemblies. We encourage sustainable transport yet we don’t listen to bus users, the concerns of the taxis trade or our businesses leaders.”
He said that the project had morphed into something different to how it started.
Green councillor Pete West, who has long championed the project as a member of the council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee, supported the proposal for an audit.
He said: “There are questions here that have been going around and around for some time.
“It is important, as we face a legal challenge holding up the project from advancing, that we ensure there is a completely transparent explanation in answering these questions.
“It needs to be done away from the political arena as there will be no satisfaction if it is not done otherwise.”
Councillor Garry Peltzer Dunn also backed an audit after expressing his “disquiet” at the concerns raised by Councillor Wares.
He said: “It is essential from the council’s point of view for the council to see and for the public to see a justification for the way it was done.”
Labour councillor Carmen Appich questioned whether an audit should take place before the Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee had formed its working group on the project.
She and fellow Labour councillor Les Hamilton were the only two members of the committee to vote against the audit request.
After the meeting of the council’s Audit and Standards Committee at Portslade Town Hall this afternoon (Tuesday 23 July) Councillor Wares said: “I am pleased that we can now have a thorough investigation into this project and make sure we are making the right decisions for the right reasons.
“I was surprised to learn the other day that a change in traffic management at the bottom of West Street hadn’t been overlapped with the plan to remove the Aquarium roundabout.
“We have just go to get smarter with these things rather than pursuing siloed projects that inevitably will collide.”