CONSTRUCTION is surely the most far-reaching sector, its impact touching virtually everyone in the city. With 20,000 people on the housing waiting list and several flagship projects in the works Brighton and Hove chamber of Commerce brought together some of the most influential figures together to discuss property and construction in the city. Business editor FINN SCOTT-DELANY reports

WITH positivity coming back into the economy and construction on the move, the focus of this year’s Construction Voice event was on what it takes to successfully develop in the city.

Developers who have finished schemes in the city or have projects in the pipeline spoke about the highs and lows of building at the Boundary Rooms, Sussex County Cricket Club, Hove.

The most significant development in recent memory, the American Express Community Stadium, is often held up as a model for construction triumph.

And while The Amex has lived up to and surpassed expectations, Martin Perry, chief executive of the Community Stadium, told guests of some of the challenges of such a landmark development.

But despite the 10 years it took to secure planning permission he said he saw the project as a “huge success” after being completed on time and on budget.

He said: “We made a number of promises. We said we would deliver jobs, opportunities, skilled training – the impact has been enormous.”

Brighton and Hove Albion’s move from its temporary home at the Withdean Stadium provided huge growth for the club.

At the Withdean capacity was 8,800 and the average attendance was 5,000.

But at the Amex capacity is 30,000 with average attendance 27,000 – the highest in the Championship.

Just 120 to 130 people operated the Withdean Stadium while The Amex employs 1,200 people on match days with 750 full-time staff.

Mr Perry said: “Sussex Enterprise said we would contribute £23 million to economy – but actually the figure is closer to £30 million.”

He discussed some of the frustrations of the planning process after a question from councillor Geoffrey Bowden, chairman of Brighton and Hove City Council’s economic development and culture committee.

Mr Perry said: “You spend £6.5 million preparing a planning application and you’ve got a group of people making a decision on highly technical information.

“Once you’ve done all the work you might only have three minutes to speak.

“I was asked if there was a bar at a training ground once. Frankly you put your head in your hands.”

But political support was vital to see major projects through.

He explained: “We give credit to Brighton and Hove City Council for the support they gave us. It would have been impossible without it.

“Officers were briefed to make it happen. When you needed help they were on hand and they’ve maintained that support.”

Keeping residents onside was also crucial during the construction process.

Mr Perry said: “What it does it take all the heat away from the construction process.”

And he said maintaining a long term view was essential on such a big project.

He said: “We were unfortunate in one way and fortunate in another.

“It took us ten years to get planning permission, but that gave us time to plan.

“We have a motto that if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

“Make sure you know what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it.”

Nearly 20,000 people in need waiting for a home

THE NUMBER of people on the city’s housing waiting list is fast approaching the dubious landmark of 20,000.

To digest the numbers and talk about affordable and social housing was Tom Shaw, southern development director of Hyde Housing, behind projects at the new Open Market, Super B and One Hove Park.

He reminded guests at the Boundary Rooms how 20,000 new homes were needed in Brighton and Hove in the next 20 years.

Mr Shaw said: “Developers used to get £120,000 from the Government per home.

“But in Brighton and Hove we’re getting no public funding at all.

“There are nearly 20,000 people on the housing waiting list in the city.

“So it’s vitally important we don’t stop building affordable homes at a time when people need them most.

“At Hyde we have £35 million in profit reinvested into new homes with several hundred under construction in the city.

“And we have ambitions to build another 300-400 more homes next year.”

Entrepreneur and developer Mike Holland asked if a new suburb was needed to deal with the problem.

Mr Shaw responded: “An interesting idea would be to take the model of enterprise zones and get the Government to create housing zones where they allocate land specifically for new homes.”

He said environmental requirements should be supported but should not stand in the way of much-needed homes.

He said: “The aspiration in the city towards high environmental standards is something we support.

“But it can be quite onerous and we would be concerned about that when there’s an acute housing shortage.”

Elected representatives were guilty of being swayed by public opinion in the case of sensitive developments, he said.

“We’ve had times where experienced professionals with years of service have recommended applications, but they’ve been turned down because 400 people in the gallery were heckling the councillors”, he explained.

Phélim MacCafferty, chairman of planning at the council, added: “The Government says there’s a big gap between what we’re providing for and what we need to build.

“We do have to build houses, or as Bill Randall said, how do we house the poor?

“We all face this challenge. We need to take tough decisions.

“What these are and where we house the poor is up to everyone in this room.”

Critics hit out at plans for student flats

THE MOST controversial topic of the event was the Circus Street development, which includes nearly 500 student residences.

Outspoken critics have described the plan as like the revival of the slums of the 1930s. Defending the case for the managed student accommodation was Karen McCormick of site developer the Cathedral Group.

She said: “We need to provide somewhere for students to live and the most sustainable place is in the city centre.

“The residences will release multiple occupancy accommodation back into the housing supply for families.

“People don’t generally want to live next to students but they have got to go somewhere.

“Students are really important to this town and a real help to the economy.

“To attract students we need to provide good housing.”

Chairman Tony Mernagh, of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership, commented: “We don’t have a lot to boast about.

“We don’t have great affordable housing or transport. But our workforce is one of our unique selling points.”

But Selma Montford of the Brighton Society tore into the plans. She said: “The tagline to this discussion is called ‘building success in the city’, but I would describe it as ‘building slums in the city’.

“This development is so dense – it is far more dense than the slums which were demolished.

“You’ve said you’ve worked with the community. But we’ve made suggestions and criticisms and haven’t seen any changes as a result.”

Councillor Geoffrey Bowden, member for Brighton and Hove City Council on the Queen’s Park ward, questioned the assumption that Circus Street would free up multiple-occupancy homes for families.

Responding to the criticisms Ms McCormick added: “The standard model is moving away from halls in the first year, and we’re finding they are wanting to go back into halls in the final year.

“We’ve worked very hard to mitigate the impact of the development.

“But they are living next to a derelict market which attracts drug addicts and crime. The majority support and understand the regenerative benefits to the area.

“Calling it slums is nonsense, with respect. It is high-density, but slums are unsanitary with squalid conditions.

“That’s absolutely not what we’re providing at Circus Street.”

14-year wait for just 19 houses

THE time it takes to get construction projects off the ground has been a hot topic.

Tony Mernagh, economic partnership director, described how long it can take to get schemes started.

He said: “In the grand tradition of Brighton and Hove you look to wait 10, 20, even 30 years for schemes to come to fruition.

Writing on the partnership’s website, Mr Mernagh detailed how a development originally earmarked for 100 affordable homes nearly 14 years ago has finally coming to market – with just 19 homes.

The 2.7 hectare Westdean site will be open on Saturday for buyers to view.

It was originally private playing fields but was abandoned in the early 1990s and became overgrown.

In 1992 the Local Plan Inspector’s report suggested it should be considered for housing if not brought back into recreational use.

Five years later it remained empty and overgrown and in 2003 Sussex Overseas Housing Association (SOHA) submitted plans for 112 affordable homes – the first 100% affordable scheme proposed in the city.

But residents formed the Withdean and Westdene Community Association to fight the scheme and the planning committee decided to leave it green – despite being private land.

In 2006 a new application was made for 36 homes covering less than half of the site, with 14 promised to be ‘affordable’, managed by a housing association.

In 2011 consent was granted for 31 homes, with 19 commercial houses being sold for between £500,000 and £640,000.

Since the planning inspector allowed the land to be developed for housing in 1997, the average house price in Brighton has gone from 3.8 times earnings to ten times earnings.

The shortfall in projected housing against projected demand over the next 20 years is 8,700 homes.