The British Empire

The Historical Development of

 North Laine, part 2

In March 1957 the Southern Locomotive works on New England Street finished its last railway job and six weeks later, re-opened to assemble Isetta's, employing 200 local Brighton workers, most of whom had worked in the locomotive works on the railway vehicles. As the factory had no road access, all the parts had to be brought in by railway, and the assembled vehicles had to be sent out by the same method. At the height of production 300 cars a week were made which averaged out at one and a half per person. The Isetta factory made its last vehicle in 1964, the Isetta having been made extinct by the BMC mini, and the bubble car era came to an end.

North Laine 1931

By 1931 North Laine was still the centre for industry in Brighton although some industries were relocating to the edges of town like Lewes Road. Some industries had disappeared or closed down (slaughter houses) and there had been some slum clearance in the North Road area resulting in the widening of North Road which was one of the main shopping streets in the town. Trams flowed through the area and new industries had arrived. In particular the printing industry was to find a home in North Laine with Southern Publishing who published the Argus moving their printing works to Spring gardens around 1890 and then moving to premises in Robert St where they remained until the 1990s.

Decline and Demolition in the late c20th

In the post war period the North Laine entered a period of decline. Industries began to move out, seeking bigger and better premises whilst the quality of the housing stock, neglected by private owners and the Council alike, was such that in 1957 the Medical Officer for Brighton and his representatives began visiting houses in the Blackman Street area, telling the inhabitants that their homes were unfit to live in. A Ministry of Housing Enquiry in 1959 upheld  the Corporation’s proposals to acquire the area (Blackman Street, Redcross Street, Wood Street, Whitecross Street and parts of Station Street and Pelham Street) for educational and industrial purposes. The Council then proceeded to buy up most of the properties, move out the tenants and in 1962 to begin the demolition and clearance of the area.

All this came at a time when councils throughout the country were trying to deal with the shortage and poor quality of the housing stock that had been caused by the loss of housing through bombing in the war and the neglect of Victorian terraces. Inner cities were seen as places of grime and dirt where sunlight never penetrated and whose Victorian houses were in decay. The answer for many local authorities was in the construction of tower blocks, concrete buildings that symbolised progress and were cheap to build. Moreover, because they could be put up quickly on sites within the city, the tax base and the voters could be kept. From 1958 the central government even gave subsidies for every layer built over five storeys.

Within four years of the demolition of the Blackman Street area, Theobald House, a Council tower block of 19 storeys, had been built and that was followed by the Technical College (now City College) which was opened in January 1971. With support for the tower blocks in many a city hall went support for a built environment based on the motor car. In 1967 Brighton County Borough Council commissioned nationwide planning consultants, Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley, to prepare a plan (‘The Brighton Central Area Study’) for the town centre. The interim plan of 1968 proposed a scheme that would encourage the car and develop the town centre in a way that would enable as many cars as possible to access the centre, with a spine road that went from Preston Circus southwards through the North Laine to large car parks which would serve the station and the town centre. From Gloucester Road southwards the road would be elevated and lead to a car park for 1600 cars south of Church Street. 130 houses in Kemp Street, Foundry Street, Queen’s Gardens and Tichborne Street would be demolished along with 21 in Jubilee Street and 59 in Windsor Street, King Street and Bond Street.

The Brighton Central Area Study (Wilson Plan) was considered by the full Council on December 17th 1970 but the plans submitted on that occasion were incomplete and the Council instructed Hugh Wilson to complete the scheme with an elevated spine road. That delay gave local residents time to galvanise and organise opposition. Council Planning committees were monitored throughout 1971 and 1972 and when the  date for objections to the plan was published (March 6th 1973), pamphlets were hurriedly organised and delivered to every household in  North Laine asking people to write into the Council to object. Meetings with Councillors were organised and a petition of 1500 signatures was collected. At a subsequent public meeting on March 27th 1973, a residents group, the North Road Area Association, was formed to resist the Wilson Plan. This group later merged with the newly formed Brighton Society in May 1973. In 1976 the North Laine residents Association was formed and campaigned to improve the quality of the built environment and in particular to fight against the Council's policy of benevolent neglect  -allowing its properties to fall into disrepair so that they could then be demolished. In 1976, Ken Fines who has spoken at one of the early NLCA meetings in April 1976 revealed his recommendation that North Laine become a Conservation Area. Conservation Area status from 1977 was to save North Laine and people began to believe in its future and invest in their properties with the Council eventually offering grants for property renovation.

North Laine c1900

The Wilson-Womersley plan of 1968 envisaged a flyover through North Laine which would have demolished 130 houses in North Laine.

A view of the flyover through North Laine