Royal Alex Site Update
Taylor Wimpey has now put forward two new planning applications for the former Royal Alexandra children’s hospital building and site on Dyke Road. One involves complete demolition of all the buildings on the site, to be replaced by a new block of 137 flats, 40% of them affordable, and a large (650 sq.m.) new GP surgery to accommodate a vastly expanded Victoria Road practice when it leaves its current premises. This proposal also includes a large new pharmacy on the site, even though there are long-established pharmacies at Seven Dials, less than five minutes’ walk away. The other proposal involves retaining and converting the Royal Alex building, remodelling the front facade, restoring the original roof line and retaining the 1913s balconies. All the other buildings on the site, regrettably including the listable villa on Dyke Road, would be demolished. This would produce 121 flats, and just under 15 per cent affordable housing, and no GP surgery.
“By submitting two parallel planning applications, Taylor Wimpey is creating a lot of unnecessary confusion,” says Mick Hamer, who chairs the Montpelier and Clifton Hill Association. “If you want to save the Alex you should support the conversion option (BH2010/03379) and object to both the demolition planning application (BH2010/03324) and the associated application for consent to demolish the main building (BH2010/03325).”
The GPs at the Victoria Road surgery have for the last few years claimed that there are no suitable alternative sites for a new surgery. It seems a strange assertion to make – over that time GP surgeries elsewhere in Brighton have successfully relocated to converted premises, for instance a former pub at the bottom of Elm Grove, and a former office block at Preston Park. In our area there are a number of vacant premises which could be converted, including 650 square metres on the ground floor of Crown House, Upper North Street; the former Blockbusters in Western Road; and the ground floor of Princes House, Queens Road. So why is the Primary Care Trust so reluctant to consider alternatives to the Royal Alex? As our editor always says, “It’s not what they’re telling you, it’s what they’re not telling you”.
Taylor Wimpey overpaid for the site, in the belief that they would be able to obtain permission to demolish all the buildings on it. According to the Distinct Valuer the site was worth £5 million for housing in 2007. Taylor Wimpey paid £11.5 million, so the National Health Service pocketed a windfall profit of £6.5 million. The Primary Care Trust has been using a Private Finance Initiative (PFI), Medical Centre Developments, to find new premises for the Montpelier Surgery. In November 2008 Medical Centre Developments signed a lease for a surgery on the Royal Alex site. It appears that to help finance this deal they raised money by taking out a mortgage on a medical centre in Birkenhead with the General Practice Finance Corporation (part of Aviva). The money that Medical Centre Developments paid for this lease has been in the hands of Taylor Wimpey’s solicitors for the past two years. So effectively the money that had been earmarked to find new premises for the Montpelier Surgery has been tied up for two years in the Royal Alex. If Taylor Wimpey can’t get planning permission for a surgery on the site, this money will have to be returned to Medical Centre Developments, with interest. Many in the area supported the well-funded ‘Save Our Surgery’ campaign, probably unaware that rather than being ‘given’ directly to the Montpelier Surgery, the Royal Alex surgery space would be placed into the hands of a privately-owned PFI company.
In surveys the public have consistently shown that they are overwhelmingly in favour of retaining and converting the main building. When Taylor Wimpey carried out a public consultation in August, about 80 per cent of comments favoured keeping the main building and only about 10 per cent were willing to sacrifice the main building for a surgery. The officers of the Clifton Montpelier Powis Community Alliance, the local residents’ association, have consistently repudiated these results, even banning residents from speaking about anything other than ‘the desirability of a GP surgery on the site’ at their public meetings, however, they now accept that a scaled down surgery proposal without a pharmacy in the conversion proposal ‘could be the way forward’.
So if all the parties involved would now agree to compromise, then we might be in sight of a conclusion to this saga. Taylor Wimpey’s S.E. Director David Brown has met representatives of the Montpelier & Clifton Hill Association and The Brighton Society to discuss the conversion scheme, which both societies support. Taylor Wimpey’s efforts to improve the conversion scheme and the fact that they’re persisting with it shows that they recognise the degree of public support there is for conversion. The MCHA is, albeit reluctantly, prepared to accept the demolition of the listable Dyke Road villa in order to save the main building. The Victoria Road surgery GPs say they do not need a pharmacy on the site, and they might now be prepared to drop their extravagant expansion plans and accept a smaller surgery in a new building on the site. With compromise from these groups now on the table it remains to be seen if the final player, Brighton and Hove City Council, would agree to trade off some of the affordable flats for a surgery. If they would then it would be possible to find space for the surgery in the conversion proposal. This could be a compromise that keeps almost everyone happy.