The Old Market: A Tangle of Conflicting Loyalties and Remits
Just after World War II the bulldozer and developers threat to Brunswick Square and Terrace architecture led to the formation of The Regency Society. Over the years it grew to be the premier Conservation voice in Brighton and Hove, the respectable Club to be seen to be joining & the trusted repository of bequeathed collections, such as the James Gray photographic archive.
Hierarchically, it has reigned over all the others. The Hove Civic Society and The Brighton Society each had their respected status, but even they have been subservient in terms of status to the very Grand and very respected Regency Society. The pecking order then takes in all the other groups like the Kemp Town Society, The Kingscliffe Society and the myriad local area resident & amenity groups and overtly campaigning ones such as my own saveHOVE and the Marina area’s more recently formed Save Brighton.
But the Regency Society was the leader of the pack, attracting serious expertise to its ruling Committee. In recent years this has come to mean attracting expertise with unattractive agendas. Predatory developers, architects and politicians, looking to serve their own interests by standing for and being elected to positions on the ruling Committee, have increased the danger of a diluted or abandoned conservation remit.
How could the members of the Regency Society have allowed people like that to gain major positions of power on their Committee, neutralising the credibility of The Regency Society as a conservation voice! By next AGM it will just be an asset-rich club, protecting and advancing the careers of architects, politicians and developers.
For most Regency Society members (other groups work in a similar fashion), membership has been all about the tea and biscuits, the wine and chamber music in the Royal Pavilion at AGM, the garden party, the lectures, the coach trips and the £60 dinners. There is little interest or involvement with boring old planning.
For the committed conservationist, however, membership has been about protecting heritage, Grades 1 and 2 Listed buildings, the Regency era Brunswick Townscape (mostly listed buildings) and the cultural story of this nation along the thread of time. Architecture is certainly High Art to the Starchitects of our time and for me, these areas of listed buildings merit the term “Artscape”.
“My turn! My turn!” the Horribles shrill, bug-eyed, teeth bared, fame and wealth on their minds. They want these buildings “euthanized” and see ambitions thwarted by their taking up space THEY could be using. “Get off the stage! My turn! My turn!” And the cultural markers that tell the visitor what country they are in, what town, city or village they are in are just so-much “brown field site” to them.
In recent years leading members of the various conservation-agenda groups have “intermarried” so to speak. They have propped up each other’s dwindling memberships by joining each other’s groups. They have aged and died. They have not been replaced with new members possessed of their deep respect, wish to learn and understandings of history and heritage, their educational strengths and grit in defending the riches of heritage this country so proudly shows off to the tourism trade. The dwindling numbers of them desperately prop up each other’s conservation remits and become haunted by the dilution and marginalisation of conservation. Social memberships and the brazen infiltration by predators for whom conservation is optional has bred deep despair. And a lot of empty hand-wringing.
At the time of the Old Market’s February planning application to put 2 glass box penthouses on the roof of the Grade 2 Listed Old Market, the convenor of the Regency Society’s planning group was former Labour councillor, Delia Forester, a woman who used her position on the planning committee on March 23rd, 2007 to provide fulsome support for the Frank Gehry colossus on Hove seafront. She led the majority Labour Party vote which gave it planning permission.
How did someone like that become convenor of the planning group at the Regency Society? A weak constitution helped allow it. The supine, tea & biscuits credulous membership voted her (and others) onto the ruling committee and thence to the planning group, the credibility of the Regency Society being of no concern to them.
How was it right that the Chair of the Regency Society was also an Old Market Trustee? How is it right that the Treasurer of the Regency Society, Stephen Neiman, is also the Old Market Trustee raising this glass boxes planning application? Should he not have resigned from the Regency Society to do that? Entanglements and loyalties so deep that you can barely see the join have meant that the move by the Old Market Trust to put big glass boxes on its Grade 2 Listed roof compromised the Regency Society’s conservation remit. Or did it?
Ahead of the 2009 Regency Society AGM, and using her Brighton University email account instead of Regency Society letterhead , Delia Forester, convenor of the Regency Society planning group, Labour politician & architect, registered fulsome planning consultation support on behalf of the Regency Society. Nervous breakdowns, angst and hysteria ensued when this became known. Loyalty to Stephen Neiman, however, led to old stagers staying their hands and not objecting as they would otherwise have done and then getting in a state about it. Remit vs. Loyalty to a close & valued colleague and mate.
Why did she (with others in commanding positions in The Regency Society) do all this? Why not start their own group? Why destroy the Regency Society’s remit and credibility? How was it even possible to do so? Putting on a military hat, I would say that taking out the leader is the best way to topple the rest. And so it came to pass.
Over at the Hove Civic Society, conflicts of loyalty, angst, rage and shattered alliances tested their commitment to conservation to its limit. One of its two members on the Council’s Conservation Advisory Group resigned over this one application. The Hove Civic prevaricated, vascillated, hung back but finally moved to a position of objection – but with blood on the floor.
This story was repeated all over the shop.
At the Regency Society AGM, regime change led to the new Chairman withdrawing Forester’s Regency Society response to the Old Market application for the two glass penthouses, declaring to the Council that because the Society was divided, there would be no response. No response to an application affecting a listed Regency building in a massively listed Regency townscape. The infiltrators had done their job and taken out the conservation movement’s leader group.
Embarrassed and mortified, torn between hurting Old Market Trustee and applicant, Stephen Neiman, or hurting the listed building, the amenity groups were like chickens trapped in the coop with a fox. Only the 11th hour intervention of the London-based Georgian Group sobered everyone up.
The Old Market is saved from glass boxes for the moment. But now the time for reckoning has come. And it is clear that the Regency Society membership will not make the effort to defend the conservation remit by learning anything other than who will be playing what at the next AGM chamber concert. It is clear too that, unlike the Brighton Society, which allows anyone to be a member, but bars politicians, developers and architects from Committee membership, the Regency Society has failed to write a Constitution which protects itself from destruction of its remit & respectable purpose.