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Archive - Monday, 11 November 2002
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Interview: Selma Montford
The secretary of the Brighton Society, is the high priestess of the city conservation movement. So does she feel progress is being made?
Buildings may come and buildings may go but Selma Montford is a reliable force in an ever-changing world.
During her time in Brighton, the old Churchill Square shopping centre was erected and then demolished, as fashions have come and gone.
It is now 30 years since she first sprang into action in a successful bid to save trees in danger of destruction when blocks of flats were being built in London Road, Brighton.
She appears as tireless as ever in her attempts to ensure the best of Brighton is conserved and new buildings are designed to as high a standard as possible.
Her best-known battle was when she and others were horrified at plans to demolish the great train shed at Brighton railway station for a new commercial development.
The plan was stopped and millions of pounds have just been spent renovating the station, now generally accepted as one of the nation's architectural glories.
Mrs Montford is now opposing plans to redevelop land next to the station with offices, housing, hotels and a supermarket.
A problem which has not been solved over 30 years is renovating the West Pier.
Mrs Montford says the enabling development at the foot of the pier will be box-like and ugly.
It's hard to image conservation and planning debates without Selma Montford making a distinctive contribution, although she is at pains to point out others are always involved.
She is secretary of both the Brighton Society and the Preston and Old Patcham Society. She has been a member of the Conservation Areas Advisory Group, which makes recommendations to councillors, and has chaired it for the past 15 years.
There have been victories over the years, notably over the saving of the parochial offices in Princes Street and in defeating plans for commercial development in West Street.
In both cases, the society managed to get plans called in by the Government for public inquiries, at which independent inspectors sided with the society.
Often victories are smaller, such as the slow improvement in details in conservation areas, which please her greatly.
There have also been notable defeats. The one that rankles the most is the building of Bartholomew Square in Brighton.
Mrs Montford warned, with some prescience, that the square would be dead because there was no proper pedestrian walkway and the resort would regret the closing of Market Street.
However, Brighton Council, hungry for new civic offices and a luxury hotel, ignored her views and gave the scheme permission.
Mrs Montford has strong views on many modern buildings. They include Hove Town Hall, where she says the lavatories are the only redeeming feature, the Brighton Centre, which she says is irredeemably ugly, and Castle Square House opposite Hanningtons, which makes her shudder.
Yet it would be a mistake to say she is against all modern buildings. Among those she likes is Carlton Hill School and some features of the Van Alen Building in Marine Parade, altered after conservation pleas to the architect.
Nor is she against all new developments. She praised the design of the new central library in Brighton after opposing earlier versions.
Opinion is sharply divided on Mrs Montford. Some regard her as a necessary nuisance while others feel she holds back progress.
Without mentioning her by name, Dr Anthony Seldon in his book Brave New City (Pomegranate Press, £20), said: "Conservationists are now in danger of becoming a reactionary and deadweight force."
However, Ken Fines, in his History of Brighton and Hove (Phillimore, £17.99), praises her as a champion of Brighton's heritage.
Mrs Montford harbours no personal grudges against her critics and can be lavish with her praise.
She says John Morley, former Director of the Royal Pavilion, was the man who encouraged her to take her role in public life and to speak confidently before an audience.
Mr Fines, as planning officer in Brighton, and Michael Ray, his opposite number in Hove, did a huge amount to encourage conservation.
As an example of how much things have changed, Brighton Council was, 30 years ago, interested in creating a road on stilts through North Laine to a huge car park at King Street.
That scheme was shelved and North Laine is now a thriving conservation area.
Mrs Montford says she is an environmentalist.
She is interested in landscape and the garden of her handsome home in Clermont Road, is full of fine trees planted by her husband, Adrian.
She is keen on restraining car use and praises the bus network in Brighton.
Now 68, she shows no sign of slowing down.
Although she is retired from her various jobs as a lecturer and a director of the Lewis Cohen Urban Studies Centre, she still works full time with her many interests.
They include Brighton Books Publishing, which has produced many volumes on the city. The next one will be on Churchill Square.
Mrs Montford now appears frequently at the Local Plan inquiry at Hove and says: "If we get this one right, other things will be right."
Will she ever stop?
Her one concession to her years is not to get up at six in the morning to work but otherwise she says: "I'm really enjoying it."