THERE is a struggle in Lewes. The county town is torn between its beguiling culture and artistic heritage – and the more pragmatic and pressing need for more housing.

Two years after first buying the Phoenix Industrial Estate, the Santon Group, in partnership with Lewes District Council, is putting the finishing touches to a planning application that will come under heavy scrunity from Lewes residents.

The scheme, by the banks of the River Ouse, comprises “substantial and varied affordable housing”, better roads and pavements, flood defences and what the developer terms “flexible space” for creative use and other small businesses at the site next to the River Ouse.

It is set to replace a collection of industrial and service units, part of an old ironworks, and now a hub for scores of artists, designers and creatives, who for the past seven years have made the Phoenix site their own on a peppercorn rent.

Called Lewes Phoenix Rising (LPR), the group wants to retain its place on the estate, where it has established studios, an arts venue, a skate park and performance spaces.

Being tenants of Santon, LPR accepts it does not own the land it is fighting for.

But it has struck out to try to preserve what it considers to be heritage worth saving in the shape of the Phoenix Ironworks.

And it is building a groundswell of people who support it, including Lewes MP Norman Baker, who last year celebrated the “wild creativity and innovation”

of the businesses on the estate.

Santon and the council insist the warehouses have to go, in line with national planning policy.

They say new and improved recreation, leisure and community facilities form an integral part of the scheme.

They also plan to bring forward construction of a new 7,000sqm of manufacturing space at Mallings Brook, a trading estate just across the river.

The project has gone through three council cabinet reports and an “inclusive community consultation programme” to figure out what should feature in the development.

All in all, they believe the project offers significant community benefits.

Clive Wilding, project director of Santon North Street, said: “The most important point we have heard and taken on board from the public is the need for affordable housing, as defined in national planning policy – and our team is confident when the application is submitted we will be very close to the plan target of 40%. This will be a first for the area.

“We are now working on the mix of housing, which will cater for young people, families and elderly people and the detail will become clear as we submit the application.

“We were particularly pleased this year to win funding from the Department for Energy and Climate Change for a lowcarbon community heating system for the regeneration project, which will both mean a greener, more sustainable development and reduced fuel bills for the residents and businesses on the site.

“This exciting regeneration scheme will bring forward a mixed development combining high-quality design with environmental excellence that will link with and complement the character of Lewes.”

But not everyone is happy about the plans.

Chelsea Renton, director and founding member of Lewes Phoenix Rising, wants three acres of the site handed over for community benefit.

She said: “It’s so short-sighted and totally lacking any vision.

“The council’s in a difficult position.

They need value for money. But it has not been done with proper consultation with the town.

She added: “We have always said let’s work together. It’s not about thumping the table.

“The Greens, Labour and Lib Dems have been very supportive.

“It’s about who supports it or not.”

One person who does support the LPR cause is Lib Dem MP Norman Baker.

He said: “The area is a hive of productive activity, providing work space and venues for artisans, manufacturing, community and educational enterprises and service jobs that are important to the diversity of a town like Lewes.

“The area is quirky, impressive and productive – just like Lewes itself.”

Mr Baker wants Santon and Lewes District Council to think again about their approach to the development and work with LPR.

Lewes District Council said the scheme was based on extensive public consultation and engagement, which had helped shape what would be submitted for planning.

Aspokeswoman said: “The council has actively sought to engage with the Lewes Phoenix Rising group and will continue to do so.

“The council is keen for them to have input into the creative and flexible work space which is an important part of the regeneration scheme proposed in the North Street Quarter development.

“A meeting with the Lewes Phoenix Rising Group occurred before Christmas with the goal of hearing more about their proposal and we will endeavour to continue to have a dialogue with them as we are committed to incorporating the views of all Lewes residents into the regeneration scheme.”

Mr Baker has urged the parties to come to a quick agreement so that “the uncertainty that has blighted this important site for many years can be removed once and for all”.

The scheme is to be examined in public by a planning inspector in the East Platinum Lounge of the American Express Community Stadium from 9.30am on Thursday, January 22.

The campaign group will be represented, and believes it has “strong arguments to over-turn the existing policy”, which it believes could force the council and Santon back to the drawing board.

The final application, following various documents submitted over the past two years, is set to be handed over to the South Downs National Park Authority by the end of February, and a statutory consultation will follow when the public can comment on the detailed plans.

The results of the consultation and earlier plans and other parts of the proposal can be seen on the project website

For details on LPR’s alternative masterplan, visit

The creative business loss

THE PHOENIX site has been developed for more than 150 years and previously hosted a wide range of industries, including the town’s old iron works, tanneries, car repairs, skip hire, tyre and exhaust units, engineering firms, galleries and various other manufacturing businesses.

It was this industrious nature that inspired Lewes Phoenix Rising.

Martin Thomas, 48, is the founder of Zu Studios, which occupies the building of the old Phoenix iron and steelworks.

He founded Zu, short for Zuvuya, a Mayan word for “transition”, in 2008 and has been accommodating creative types and putting on events ever since.

It is home to 20 artists at the moment.

He said: “It’s really got quite a bit of positivity to it. Every year has been a blessing.

“In seven years an amazing community of people have come together.

“Creative people coming together and doing great things, that’s where the magic is.

“It would be really tragic if this went but things are always going to be developing.

“We have put our heart and soul into this but if it goes we will do it somewhere else.”

He said the next step for his venture would be taking Zu to a farm.

Damian Wood, 44, a film-maker and artist on the site, said: “There are some amazing structures and buildings here and it seems they want to knock everything down and build housing that most people won’t be able to afford.

“There are lots of social enterprises here as well as businesses.

“Phoenix Rising has some great ideas but it seems the council are reluctant to take on some interesting plans.

“Most businesses won’t be able to stay in Lewes – it’s not just us, the garages and other businesses are affected too.”

Ed Wade-Martins, 39, a musician, added: “We came here seven years ago and were told we had a year.

“It’s a moment where you can do something really amazing or really bad and doing something bad seems to be the status quo.

“It’s still just blossoming.”

The housing gain

THE SITE was bought by private developers The Santon Group for around £6 million after a bidding war ahead of several other interested parties at the beginning of 2012.

It bought the site in North Street, Lewes, from the administrators of previous owners Angel Property, which was dissolved in May 2011.

The Santon Group purchased the site in partnership with South Africa-based MAS, which cited a development value of approaching £100 million.

Lewes councillor and chairman of Lewes Community Land Trust John Stockdale said he was keen to speak with the site’s new owners at the time.

The land trust group led a five-year campaign against plans by previous owners Angel Property to develop the site, which included building a tenstorey tower.

This time, given the 400 homes planned and the 40% target for affordable housing, Coun Stockdale is more positive.

He told The Argus: “It’s almost 50% of what Lewes is supposed to provide over the next 15 years so it’s a very important contribution.

“Safely delivering housing of the right standard is very important.

“The developer has worked quite carefully with the town’s people in terms of what’s being put forward.

“We haven’t seen the final plans so we have to be cautious. I hope they get the mix right.

“But I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing – it’s so far so good.”

And not all the businesses are unhappy about leaving the Phoenix estate behind.

Barry Draper, branch manager of timber merchants Wenban-Smith, said: “It’s just a bit of an eyesore.

“I just think that the centre of the town needs smartening up.

“There’s nothing worth keeping over here.”

Wenban Smith is set to move to the Mallings Brooks estate across the river as part of the Santon plan.

And what about the fire station?

ANOTHER issue for Santon is what happens to Lewes Fire Station.

Santon has said it owns the site but Lewes Fire Station sits in the middle of it.

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service owns the freehold for the fire station, though it is not clear which parts of the fire station site belong to Santon.

A spokeswoman said: “There is no formal proposal on the table which includes the redevelopment of our site, however we can confirm we have been approached by developers.

“We remain committed to keeping a fire station in Lewes and any options would require a suitable alternative site being identified for the fire station in the area.”

The Argus understands that the fire station is to relocate at some point in the future.