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Lewes: the place to go to see what the future looks like

If you were able to attend the Human Nature Phoenix Planning Application Launch on Friday (27 January 2023) at The Depot, Lewes what did you come away feeling? What key phrases rang in your ears? Have you done anything as a consequence? I did. 

To the event: it was heaving with people and full of the kind of bonhomie that The Depot is so good at. It was Robert Senior – The Depot who introduced things: “This is an exciting development for the town, and I’ve invested in it”, he said. In brief introduction he compared getting it right for the North Street Development as similar to the transformation of the former Harvey’s Brewery Depot site, with the same issues and expectations, but on a far larger scale. Robert Senior expressed his hope that the Planning Application will go through without a lot of issues.

Katie Derham hosted the event. She’s lived around here for 15 years apparently (closer to Haywards Heath than Lewes) and unless I am mistaken I taught her children to swim with Mid-Sussex Marlins at The Dolphin (hers was a familiar name amongst parents for a time) … I digress.  

Jonathan Smales, Executive Chairman, Human Nature resisted the temptation he must rightly feel to sell the virtues of the project for an hour or so and kept to his allotted ten minutes. He provided a potted history of  Phoenix Ironworks and the issues that arise from a ‘wickedly’ difficult brownfield site. In this context I understand the term ‘wicked’ to contrast with ‘messy’ – management speak for ways to describe different creative problem solving approaches, a ‘wicked’ problem having no easy fix, requiring as it does much subjective soul searching and inventiveness, while a ‘messy’ problem has to be addressed with logic and analysis. That’s my take on it, Jonathan Smales might say he just plucked the adjectives from there air. 

A planning application in Lewes passes through the gut of four planning departments: Lewes Town Council, Lewes District Council, East Sussex County Council and South Downs National Park Planning Department. Each has some, a bit, not much or a lot of influence on the other, or not, depending on the issue, and how aligned the thinking and understanding is across the individuals in these departments. That is my personal take on the situation after nearly four years as a Lewes Councillor and 25 years poking my mind into ‘local issues’ here in Sussex (20 years) and Warwickshire (5 years). 

To say that the North Street Quarter is “Not in great shape after 20 years of dereliction and blight” is an understatement. It is sad that sites like this are too commonplace – so good luck truly, bonne courage, to those who wish to take on and transform such sites that for multiple reasons can stagnate, become blocked or caught up in development/planner/legalistic imbroglios. 

The bullet points were:

  • The safest part of the town for flood defences
  • The only large-scale carbon regenerative development (in the UK, Europe, possibly the world/universe … I was getting my thumbs wrapped around ‘regenerative’ as I took notes on my phone (I should have just recorded a sound note of the entire thing). 
  • The involvement of 15 architects
  • A potted history of Phoenix Rising
  • The biggest affordable scheme in ESCC
  • £400m investment

As a someone who loves being on, in or beside water (lakes, rivers and the sea … and swimming pools!) I was interested in the slipway on the development (Lewes needs another with public access). Though not if this creates a safety risk or sees jet-skis on the water.

I am intrigued that artists often imagine the development at high tide (twice in 24 hours, not always in daylight), and in mid-summer, with the sun shining brightly through from the north east (around 4:00 am). The reality of living here will be different, not in a bad way: we have weather (cloud, rain, wind, drought) and we have constant change in the river. An animation, rather than artist’s sketches would better show what a place will look like and be like to live in (though costly I suppose). Trees too, mature 30-50 year old trees – Surely there should be no problem showing a three year old sapling and recognising that it will take generations to grow to maturity (unless of course, mature trees are going to be planted here). We shall see. I’m sure Audrey Jarvis of Lewes Urban Arboretum could provide advice.

The Lead Designer, from Periscope, Dan Ray then spoke. He talked about the development having to fit into Lewes, “for the next few hundred years”.

With the castle on the hill and the Saxon layout of the High Street and Twittens that might be rephrased ‘for the next thousand years’. It should be built to endure. 

Points covered included:

3 minutes walk

  • Flood attenuation
  • Landscape systems

Robert Ash of Ask Sakula Architects then introduced the first parcel of the development which will be at the far end of the site next to Wailley’s Bridge and the Pells. I was taken by how European it looked, with suggestions of Barcelona in the brightly coloured, sunny artist’s impressions or certainly something from the Netherlands, or of some community developments in Strasbourg. He’s a fan of shutters; so am I.

I don’t understand why external shutters aren’t commonplace across the UK, as they are across continental Europe both to shade windows in summer, but also to keep in the warmth in winter. The Georgians had internal shutters, why no more? Double-glazing? Cost cutting? We need them, the Phoenix Development will have them. 

There were various exemplars of sustainability, such as green walls. The community should grow to care for these, especially to find a way to keep them alive in the case of a drought. Will the development be able to extract water from the Ouse when water becomes in short supply? Drought as well as flooding has to be mitigated against.

The panel for the Q&A introduced themselves, of value in its own right, but it ate into time that might have been better spent taking questions from the audience. Half-an-hour for this and 12 minutes or more went on introductions – though I sense this wasn’t the place for tackling potentially awkwards questions which would have come up had it gone on longer – a shame, as the panel would surely have been able to address these, the ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. I felt like mentioning a few ‘known unknowns’ but felt better about it. 

Most impressive was Professor Raphie Kaplinsky, an Economic Historian (retired, he’s an emeritus at University of Sussex), formerly of The Open University. Google him and you learn that “Since his formal retirement at the end of 2014, he has begun working on the green economy and urban regeneration in Newhaven and Lewes (towns close to Sussex University), and in Greece” and more besides from his website Raphie Kaplinsky.  

He summed up 300 years of global Economic History in about 8 minutes flat, mentioning in passing four, what he called ‘long wave techno-paradigms’ from the Industrial Revolution with waves of creative destruction that interrupted conservatism, taking in periods of populism, standardisation, mass production, individualism and decentralised. Henry Ford got a mention; he might have added Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. His rallying cry was “Lewes: the place to go to see what the future looks like!”

Others on the panel, none of whom took a question, if I recall which rather turned them into set dressing included: Julia Oxborrow, Environmental Campaigner; Kelly Harrison, a leader in timber projects.

Zoë Nicholson, of Lewes District Council, asked the first question. She spoke of a positive ‘alignment of partnership working’ and summarised the presentation made by Human Nature for the North Street Quarter by praising recognition of the importance of: housing density – and so not building on greenfield sites or close to and adjacent to ancient woodlands; sustainability, in relation to becoming carbon neutral and meeting the problems of the energy crisis, as well as affordable homes – so that Lewes people can live and work here.

David Cown qualified this from the panel saying that  the development has to be “a place where people live, not just a housing development.” There was criticism of the ability of the South Downs National Park to make the right decision, given that they have agreed to a widening of the Exeat Bridge over the Cuckmere without pedestrian or cyclist access.

Jonathan Smales used a footballing metaphor to describe having to “play the ball in front of you … and having to be ruthlessly pragmatic”, pointing out that the South Downs National Park “is obliged to listen to everyone”. 

A question came from Cllr Dr Patricia Patterson-Vanegas, Wealden District Council (Greens). She is the one who described the plans for the Lewes North Street Quarter as ‘music to my ears’. Her question concerned water – in particular relating to sewage, or “toilet flushing” as she politely put it. This opened up a discussion on rain gardens, water harvesting and flood management. 

Conversations continued for a short period over a buffet lunch. I was able to introduce myself to Prof Kaplinsky, felt too shy to ask for a selfie with Natasha (no one else was), noted the views of Patricia Patterson-Vanegas and spoke to several fellow Town Councillors ahead of the first of several upcoming meetings of the Lewes Town Council Planning ‘Task & Finish Group’ in relation to the Human Nature Phoenix Development.

When I got home I googled Raphie Kaplinsky and then ordered ‘Sustainable Futures’ which may be the first in several books I read through of his given how taken I was by what he said. Can Lewes truly be “what the future looks like” ? Not a bleak dystopian science-fiction future, but more Shangri La – a Blue Lagoon for families? Without the required climate impacts delivering Mediterranean weather to the South Downs.

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