Western Road Brighton – a city’s lost decade and a council’s public shame

Western Road Brighton South Side with boarded up shops and restaurants and the Georgian mock-Pavilion architecture above them.

It’s an embarrassment! Two boarded shops on a central thoroughfare in a tourist town – architectural delights above.

What happened to Western Road? The housing in central Brighton is some of the country’s most expensive outside desirable London; it’s a central thoroughfare between major parts of one of the best-known cities in England; it has architecture to be proud of as long as you keep your head high and yet the locale remains at best a desert, at worst a temple to the low cultural horizons of the twenty-first century British seaside.

Some hint at the city’s former ambitions can be seen if, rather than scampering past the boarded up shops, homeless ghettos and everything’s-a-quid arcades, you look up at the higher floors of the buildings. A walk from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square offers a number of listed buildings, porticoed and enlarged between 1910 and 1930, designed to rejuvenate and make grand the thoroughfare of wealthy Brighton at the wane of Empire.

A hundred years on and the same buildings are home to only a few stores that aim for that same grand statement or nurture the promise that shopping is a world of elevated feeling, pampering and pleasure and honest satisfaction.  The upper storeys frown down now on a grubbier collection of high-street staples with their plastic signage.  Little testaments to the heightened possibility of the British high street experience exist here still – C&H, Kobar, Burts, Taj, and further towards the Hove border, the marvellous Cutter and Grinder. Back opposite Waitrose, the newly vanished Verano Lounge, once Loch Fyne and then a bar and billiard hall, is now another boarded-up frontage, joining its long-term derelict neighbour, once the site of video-shop Blockbuster. Look up and there are the towers and turrets of a mini Brighton Pavilion to enjoy, but no-one looks up.

Iron frame being erected, British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark)

British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark) From Peter Groves’ website

The 1870s took the ‘West Laine’ as it was from a thread of residential housing to a shopping street as it became the main route to the Brunswick Estate – now Brunswick Square and environs.  The Council pre World War One took action to acquire leases in order eventually to standardise the road’s width and bring some elements of planning to the district.

Through the 1920s and 30s the department store boom saw Boots, British Home Stores and Wades along with Woolworths and Marks and Spencers in 1932. A road of accessible and monumental shops, each with a brief to look as impressive as their products. Mitre House (one of the few buildings to have smartened itself in the past decade) also survives from this era. It seems woeful to point to the historic interest that elements of the street have.  Peter Groves speaks neutrally of the development which allowed only “remnants of old residential properties to remain” and points to Codrington Mansion, on the North Side, built in about 1830 and once the home of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who captained HMS Orion in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The plaque can be seen above a very ordinary row of shops. A plaque which has yet to be put in place further East might reference the Wisden family’s role in building the original terraces that lead up from Western Road. John Wisden (of the yellow cricket Almanac fame) was born and lived in a house on Crown Street again in the 1830s. By the 1930s big business was making the street grand, Seventy years later the grandeur was all but gone.

A comment on the mybrightonandhove site adds:

I remember as a little girl in the 50s going to a big shop called Plummer Roddis. My grandmother used to take me there and we’d have lunch. It was very posh, but not as posh as Hills of Hove! I also remember Wades, and Vokins down North Street and Hanningtons. What a shame we dont have such good stores nowadays. shops are full of cheap rubbish! Or am I just getting old?  By Lyn Horsburgh nee Waller (of the H A Waller & Sons family) (24/03/2013)

Those who mourn the demise of Hannigtons and welcome the John Lewis promises of a development on North Street might well see Western Road as a particularly desperate case in the annals of British high street history.

Despite the success of North Laine, Jubilee Square and the revitalisation of the seafront since the mid-nineties, many visitors to Brighton see only dirt and depression. This aspect lay in the background of the Guardian’s article on the British Airways i360, as Brighton’s “lost decade.” Western Road couldn’t have been more lost. In a part of England where two bedrooms will cost half a million pounds plus, and which, via Preston Street, could well form part of a tourist walk from the new seafront development by West Pier back to the station, in this bit of town, 10% of shop windows are boarded up, 20% are pop-up or bargain retail, the rest speak to a world of perfunctory everyday and recessional shopping that are part of no tourist itinerary. Primark is a top-end shop on this strip and despite some hot-headedness with planned delivery vehicles, their development did renovate the 1920s West-facing wall and keeps the imposing look that its 1930’s forerunner BHS had planned. It’s sad that the rag-bag of dismal shops here aren’t forced to smarten up to Primark’s example.

Western Road from the i360 at full height

Western Road from the i360 – the tops of the buildings occupied by MacDonald’s and Poundland

While you are advised to look up when heading along Western Road and catch the architecture, rather than the bog-standard corporate hoardings, there is now, of course, a chance to look down on some of these same streets. Three cheers then for the British Airways i360.  Have a glance from the top of the i360 and you see some of what you can so easily miss at ground level, the fact that many of the buildings of Western Road are fascinating and lovely. Above McDonald’s and Argus is a portico that could grace a Greek temple. Beside that are the 1930s department store developments that once sought to inject grandure into Western Road and did so with some style and some longevity.

Yes, at last, following walkouts by Ghery and others, Brighton has a new construction, one designed to bring tourists to spend money, enjoy the seafront – not to mention the lofty view of the sea and countryside – and recommend the place to their hoards of culture hungry friends. Surely the city will prosper, will be famous for something other than the rough-stuff of Cuffs and Peter James – we may even find Brighton is a destination of choice for those who fly to London and seek their day out from among the provincial towns – Oxford, Windsor etc. –  or the quirky interesting features of North Laine will flourish and spread. Or is this thought too genteel and gentrified a prospect.

Brighton can surely compete if we can get our visitors to the Georgian squares at Brunswick and Palmeira and back safely to the station.  However it’s far too easy as a tourist to come down, wander down Queens Parade, West Street, Western Road and then head home wondering what’s so special about this so-called tourist town. What indeed? The lucky ones turn from the station and go through the buzz of North Laine and onto the Lanes and find refuge on the much improved seafront, but it’s easy to miss, or easy to see kiss-me-quick Brighton as the only aspect, an overspill from the 1960s cliche of the dirty weekend resort.

Poundland, Western Road, Brighton

Poundland are allowed a window display of stickers in a conservation area and on a GII listed building

Too few tourists head for the sweeping Regency Brighton of the squares. Even fewer know the sloping, winding streets that make up Clifton Montpellier conservation area. Yet the conservation area touches Western Road, and includes the streets that rise up the hill from it. Heritage protection of all the houses mean most properties need planning permission to change their front doors, must paint facades every two years and can only have bona fide wooden bow sash windows. Yet the Western Road shops seem to get away with atrocities. The council have let Poundland stick their national standard product stickers in the conservation zone on a listed building. At one stage the shop even got away with a giant exposed satellite dish on the East wall. Brand icons proliferate unchecked on tawdry scraps of industrial plastic.  A blue Greggs sign vanishes alongside a range of temporary plaques that offer homage to the low-cost, short-lifespan end of shopping, while banners for closing down sales vie against the stack-em-high sell-em-cheap fly-by-nighters and the insidious brown chipboard that covers so many windows in the area.

Boarded up shop front on Western Road, Brighton

Site of former Jamie Oliver Recipease, closed in 2014. The legacy of the failed venture is a boarded up shop front two years on.

Jamie Oliver’s Recipease moved in, did okay, did a revamp and then shipped out. It’s remained boarded up ever since, with locals looking for who’s to blame and gathering that either the council have failed to control the area or some phantom pension fund have taken the upper hand. Someone must accept responsibility for unaffordable rents, unclean frontages, unmanaged and possibly by now unmanageable degradation. Yet the users, the inhabitants and the range of visitors seem too mixed to produce any positive push on a direction for this place. The percentage of houses owned by those who do not live in central Brighton is huge with smaller properties being prime pickings for landlords and buy-to-lets. In terms of ownership central Brighton regularly tops the most-expensive-places-to-live-outside-London charts. It’s even more of a force in the charts that show the gap between average earnings and average house prices. Few people who can afford central Brighton housing actually work in Brighton – it’s a commuter hot spot, too. By the looks of Western Road even fewer people who can afford central Brighton housing actually shop in central Brighton and at some stage perhaps even this trade will stop.  Boarded out shops cater for no-one.

Yet with the new i360 promising to show us new views of the fifth elevation across Brighton and offering a draw on tourists to the South of the country, there is perhaps some hope. The opportunity is there to make Brighton’s central areas a place of delight and charm for all users, whether passing through, shopping or living. Just get it cleaned up!

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