Portsmouth City Council’s Planning Committee today approved both the planning applications submitted in support of the ARTches project. More from me on today’s meeting is here. Original blog continues below:
As this blog must seem to regular readers like a long tirade against Portsmouth City Council, the Lib Dem administration, and some of the senior officers, it’s a pleasure to have something positive to say about them for a change.
The ARTches project in Broad Street is an exciting, imaginative use of a space that at present adds very little to the life of the city. You can see for yourself all the key documents on the PCC website, Paul Gonella of Strong Island has written an excellent explanation of the cultural background and impact it will have.
I’ve been a fan of the scheme since I first came across it. Point Battery, at Broad Street, is at the historic heart of the city. For most of Portsmouth’s existence, it was the bustling, bawdy, busy, rowdy heart. The famous Rowlandson cartoon of 1811 “Portsmouth Point” is a mild exaggeration, but the area around Broad St, with the chain ferry to Gosport, commercial shipping coming and going from the Camber Docks, and Vosper’s shipyard all made it a working part of the city. And then, of course, the Luftwaffe arrived, and much of the heritage was bombed – we lost nearly everything in the High St – and the post-war City Council did the rest.
English Heritage list the Round and Square Towers as Grade I. Between them runs Point Battery, the seaward side of which preserves the work of Colonel Desmaretz in the 1750s, updating de Gomme’s work of the 1660s:
However what little you see on the landward side is far younger, dating from the 1850s when the battery was again updated, Point Barracks were constructed, and the buildings on the western side of Broad St were demolished to make way for them.
In addition to losing ancient buildings, King James’s Gate and the fortifications around it were removed. The scale of civic vandalism inflicted in removing the walls around the oldest part of Portsmouth, and a lot of ancient architecture with them in the 19th century is hard to comprehend today. It would never be permitted. There’s an excellent potted history of the story of Portsmouth’s fortifications here.
But there is no vandalism afoot with the ARTches scheme. In the 60s, Portsmouth City Council bought the area and the structures from the MoD, and has had responsibility for maintaining them ever since. When PCC bought the site, Point Barracks were demolished; they had no historical or architectural merit and the whole area was a run-down mess. There are a number of information boards in the area, and I found a photo of part of the site when it still housed the barracks. I’ve matched it up with one of the same view (from a slightly different spot) from today:
You’ll notice that there were various outbuildings built on to the landward side of the Battery, and in fact prior to the demolition of the barracks the open area in the lower photograph would have been cluttered.
It was great to see the interior and Round and Square Towers reopened for useful purposes a couple of years ago. But maintaining heritage costs money, and if a site can be used in a manner which respects its heritage, its fabric, and its context, it makes sense to let it earn its keep. There is nothing in heritage or planning guidelines that forbids this, and the indications are that English Heritage positively welcome the scheme.
The debate about the scheme is intensely polarized. I’ll say straight away that residents have an absolute right to object to a development on their doorstep. However, raising petitions of whatever size on either side does not in itself contribute a lot to acceptance or rejection of the scheme in the planning process. But they do give an indication of depth of feeling, and it never hurts to let the council know what you think.
It seems to me, though, that when the anti-campaign depends on loose statements about what the plan involves, it is in trouble. There is an “anti” petition on the 38 Degrees site, and I want to consider some of the language used to recommend it:
“Please do not allow Old Portsmouth’s historic Arches to become low-rent Art Studios, cafes and a Brasserie. Residents are objecting to this development for the same reasons that any person would object to a proposal to plant a café in the middle of Stonehenge.”
I think “low-rent” here is really meant in the American pejorative sense. What else is the relevance of the level of rent? As we’ll see later on, the antis rest their case heavily on doubts about the economics of the scheme – you’d be expecting them to be protesting that rents are too high to make business viable.
The bit about Stonehenge is pure hype. Stonehenge has a clearly-defined purpose and form, and putting anything “in the middle of it” would undermine that. But the ARTches proposal brings back into use existing structures, and does so in a respectful way. You’d think from the hysteria that runs throughout the text that PCC is trying to recreate 19th century Montmartre by the sea, awash with opium-addled artists sharing tenements with prostitutes and criminals.
“What we have now is an area of international repute and interest. Once it has been tampered with, it will have gone forever. ”
No, it won’t. Again, using the existing structures safeguards their continued existence, if anything. The construction of the Millenium Walkway along the top of the Battery represents quite a lot of “tampering” with the structure, but it is reckoned to be a great benefit to the city and the area. The seaward face of the Battery, which really is the historic bit, won’t be affected at all, except to sort out the awful old WW2 searchlight and gun emplacement by the Round Tower:
“The buildings and their setting are far too important to allow such major changes to be implemented, especially when there is no publicly available business plan to review.”
The setting of the arches, as I’ve already shown, is completely divorced from their original 18th century historical context. The buildings themselves will be enhanced by the plan. If the objectors want to replace the real heritage and rebuild the taverns and brothels that originally stood on the western side of Broad St, in the interests of restoring the historical setting I’ll support them all the way:
I’d love to see the authentic atmosphere of Point restored! Here’s an illustration from William Gates’ “The Portsmouth That Has Passed”, looking down Broad St towards the Square Tower:
English Heritage say on the subject of listed buildings:
“Listing is not a preservation order, preventing change. Listing is an identification stage where buildings are marked and celebrated as having exceptional architectural or historic special interest, before any planning stage which may decide a building’s future.
Listing does not freeze a building in time, it simply means that listed building consent must be applied for in order to make any changes to that building which might affect its special interest…The local authority uses listed building consent to make decisions that balance the site’s historic significance against other issues such as its function, condition or viability.”
The special interest of these brick arches is not in any way undermined by this scheme. In fact, with reference to “condition and viability”, keeping the arches just as they are is likely to damage their condition in the long term. When I was looking at them earlier on I was struck by the pervasive smell of urine and generally deteriorating condition of the rendering:
Please take it as read that references to the “setting” in the anti petition in general are to be regarded as architectural and historical nonsense.
Back to the petition:
“It is almost inevitable that the area will lose its historic ambience and become just another café and retail outlet location.”
I can’t help but think that the objection is to the area acquiring a bit more of a modern ambience in addition to its historical one, and not instead of it. The bare arches as they are contribute very little interest to the area. Everyone’s familiar with brick arches, across the country they support railway viaducts, bridges, canals, etc, etc. Part of the ambience of the area has for a long time been the community of artists who gather there to work and sell their work. This scheme builds on that heritage.
“Old Portsmouth is an area already well served by pubs/bars and cafes. If the proposed new cafes and brasserie were paying less rent and business rates then it would be unfair on existing businesses who work hard to survive especially during these difficult economic times.”
If PCC were planning to plonk another Guildhall Walk in Broad St, I would be an objector myself. There hasn’t been a standalone restaurant in the immediate area since the one in the former Seagull pub shut years ago, there is a cafe down by the Camber and one on the corner of Pembroke Rd. The pubs serve food, true, but nobody’s proposing to open a pub next to the Round Tower. The points about business case the objectors make are not in themselves planning considerations and I’m surprised they set such store by them. It’s strange to argue on the one hand that the scheme will draw more people to the area, and then on the other hand argue that there won’t be enough people to go round between the various businesses. It has to be one or the other, surely?
I’ve heard it said that the anti campaign are now going round trying to collect signatures by claiming that the arches could become a Tesco Express one day! PCC will still be the landlord of the property and will be in a position to control who they let it to; there is no danger of a Tesco happening.
As I’ve already said, residents have every right to object, but if they resort to deliberately misleading arguments and alarmist nonsense (“desecration of these historic listed [sic] buildings”), they risk looking daft to everyone else at best and as out-and-out snobs at worst. I’m more interested in the accuracy of the arguments raised, but some people will inevitably see things ad hominem.
Now, there’s one thing with the “pro” campaign I’m uneasy about, and in the interests of balance let’s look at it. From the accompanying text of the pro petition:
“Any objection is a prime example of local residents trying to stop anything happening on their own doorstep and treating the surrounding area as their own back garden.”
Residents do have a right to object. The point is that there are planning policies and criteria to measure a scheme against as well, and if the scheme meets those it stands every chance of success. I think if the pro campaign concentrates on the real potential benefits of the scheme, and points out the myths propagated by the anti campaign without making it personal, public opinion across the city will stay behind the scheme. Everyone wants to see the city grow culturally and economically.
The consideration that the antis have the best case with is parking and transport. But the area is already protected by a residents’ parking scheme, so that cancels out some concern; and there is car parking available within a couple of minutes’ walk. The bus service to the High St via Pembroke Rd is good from most parts of the city, the number 19 bus goes right up Broad St. If there are two or more of you travelling, a taxi is virtually always the cheapest form of public transport these days anyway.
The council will want to put some more detail into some aspects of the proposal, and will have to get the commercial management right – getting the building work done isn’t the end of it. But this is a great scheme which will enhance the city’s cultural environment, and I think when it’s operating will be seen by residents as an enhancement of the area as well.
As I have already cautioned, petitions don’t win planning decisions on their own but encouraging participation in any form in public debate is something I am always keen to do. I hope you’ll sign the pro petition; if having read all this you choose to sign the anti petition, I think it’s a pity, but it’s your right.