We are barely five minutes into our meeting when Simon Jenkins declares the Brighton Centre “an outrage” and the marina “an offence”. The journalist, campaigner and National Trust chairman is renowned for his outspoken views – especially on the topics of architecture and conservation – but I hadn’t expected a demonstration this early on.

I am at the National Trust’s elegant St James’s Park HQ to talk to him about his new role as president of Brighton and Hove’s Regency Society, which he takes up tomorrow. While keen to stress he is merely a figurehead, with no operational involvement in the society, he lived in Brighton many moons ago (Montpelier, where his love of stucco-clad terraces surely blossomed) and is serious about preserving what he sees as its character.

In an article for the Guardian in 2006, when he first condemned the collapsed West Pier, Brighton Centre and marina, he wrote that Brighton “deserved punishment for abusing its glory to become a downmarket Marbella”. He’s only fractionally more tactful now: “It’s one of the great Regency cities of Britain, with character in depth, marvellous mews and all those alleys and lanes! I was very aware when I lived there that the city is very extensive and also extremely vulnerable.

“I was there when The Lanes were being redeveloped and when [the Brighton Centre] went up and it was simply an outrage. The marina is an offence but at least it’s in the sea. Brighton and Hove together comprise a unified landscape and the buildings along the coast ought to respect that.”

A former editor of The Times and London’s Evening Standard, Jenkins is a passionate advocate for conservation. Before taking up his National Trust post in 2008, he founded the Railway Heritage Trust and was a founder member of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the Thirties Society. As an author, he has published books on England’s best houses and churches (among them, Brighton’s St Michaels and All Angels, and St Bartholomew’s).

The Regency Society, founded in 1945 to oppose the proposals to demolish the Regency terraces and squares of the seafront, unsurprisingly considers him “a perfect fit”. “I’ve known the society over a number of years and have traditionally seen it as two things: one is to be a repository of wisdom about Regency architecture in Brighton and Hove, and secondly, by that token, to champion its conservation when under threat,” Jenkins explains.

But he rebukes the criticism from some quarters that the society aims to preserve the city in aspic – mainly, it seems, because he has a problem with that expression. “I’m fairly robust about aspic,”

he laughs. “I can’t see what’s wrong with it. It’s usually just a term of abuse for someone who doesn’t want something to be built when someone else does. I don’t know what it means really. Clearly in a city like Brighton there’s going to be building and so on happening all the time. You just want what happens to be in the context of what’s there already and I think you can only make judgments about that if your eye is trained and educated to the dominant style of the town, which is Regency.”

Does he not think it a little strange that the society should be consulted even on developments far from any historic architecture, such as the new Amex Stadium in Falmer (which it opposed)? On the contrary; Jenkins thinks it is quite right, on the basis that any changes affect the city’s Regency character. “If the society were to say, ‘We’re only interested in Palmeira Square or the Royal Crescent, build a skyscraper behind it for all we care,’ that’s not being true to their purpose.”

He doesn’t use the example of skyscrapers casually – they are one of his biggest bugbears, as readers of his columns for the Guardian and London Evening Standard will be aware. He once described The Shard, the 310m-high building near London Bridge, as “a spike through the heart of historic London” and similar developments in the capital as evidence of “the phallic obsession that gripped both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson on taking office”.

“Towers are fine in the desert but in somewhere like Brighton, for example, they’re ridiculous. I’ve watched them go up and thought, ‘This is out of scale, it’s unnecessary.’ You can get high-density development that’s more low-rise, there’s just no need for it. It’s visible from everywhere, it’s not beautiful and Brighton is very beautiful.”

Disappointingly, he is unwilling to take a stance on the proposed i360 observation tower set to be built opposite Brighton’s West Pier. “I don’t live there and I haven’t seen the plans. I couldn’t comment.”

He doesn’t dislike all modern development, though. He refused to back The Regency Society when it objected to the rebuild of the King Alfred Centre in Hove, by world famous architect Frank Gehry. “I didn’t have a big problem with it,” he shrugs of the controversial plans, currently on ice due to funding issues. “I thought it was too big but they asked me to protest about it and I wouldn’t. If you don’t live in a town, you shouldn’t stick your nose in, but Frank Gehry is a remarkable architect.

“The problem with most modern buildings is that they shout at you – they want to dominate their surroundings. The Gehry building stood out but it wasn’t in a Regency area.” He is actually quite keen, he reveals, to try out examples of modern architecture at some of the National Trust’s visitor centres. Gosh.

His tenure at the NT is proving fruitful. He was determined to make our heritage more accessible by removing ropes and warning signs, lighting fires in the grates of stately homes and so on. While some accused him of “Disneyfication”, visitor numbers have reportedly increased by 10% or more at each of the Trust’s properties – no mean feat.

It seems unlikely he will have such a dramatic effect on Brighton but he certainly intends to be a regular visitor to the city, with lectures for the Regency Society to be announced in 2012.

“It’s a marvellous place,” he smiles.

* For more information about the Regency Society and future events, visit www.regencysociety.co.uk