20.08.19…..Last Monday, on the Glorious 12th, a phone call out of the blue from Rob Starr informed me that a press release was to go out in a week’s time announcing that Crest could not proceed. But…and there was an ugly but, there was more to his reason for ringing.
Let me begin with a reminder. The Starr Trust began to consider going after the King Alfred site in 2012, at a time when BHCC were not tendering to redevelop. It was in part Starr’s interest that got the Green Administration (2011-15) to consider the time was right (that recovery from the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown was secure enough), and interest was high enough, to again welcome bids to redevelop the King Alfred/RNR site.
A new Planning Brief
Developers do not decide what goes on a proposed site. Planning Strategy operating with other council officers do that. The Local Plan policy demanding a leisure centre plus a lot of housing was carried forward to the replacement City Plan Pt 1 (within policy SA1) with little change. The old Karis era Planning Brief was tweaked a bit and specifies interior content for the leisure centre. The new Planning Brief was agreed by cllrs at P&R in July 2013.
Prospective developers bidding to redevelop King Alfred were required to deliver a leisure centre with specified content along with over 400 units of housing. The leisure centre would be for BHCC to own and run. There are still huge numbers of people blaming the winning bidders for the lack of a 50m pool in the scheme and tower blocks of housing. Read and LEARN!
A competition was opened
Rob Starr had never done a development in his life before. But he was a highly successful businessman in the financial services sector. And he organised and got the architects, and whoever else was needed for The Starr Trust to create and tender a worked-up bid. And that included knowing what he could not do and getting a big housebuilder on board to deliver his scheme. Crest Nicholson made a deal with him. Get to the short list and we will come on board. And the Starr Trust did exactly that and, with their 50/50 Crest Nicholson partner, won the bid in 2016.
That is the backstory you need to have absolutely clear. Be clear who is responsible for what process. And either credit or blame the right people.
And then along came BREXIT!
From 2016 on, the entire housebuilding and other construction areas have really struggled to make things work. Bid costings could not be held onto because of soaring material costs and labour shortages as well as the value of the Pound, BREXIT chaos and uncertainty. But as well, Crest played hardball with BHCC AND its Starr Trust partner even as the financial press were reporting on the health problems of Crest Nicholson itself.
There were rumours that Crest was trying to push the Starr Trust out completely and take over. Too, Brighton & Hove City Council appeared to concentrate all their interest on Crest as did the media. At least one councillor believed the Starr Trust was completely insignificant and that Crest Nicholson had put the scheme together and were the de facto bidders. They were 50% of it and put NOTHING into the bid until the Starr Trust made the shortlist. Rob Starr bore the cost of creating that bid up to the shortlist point. I dare say his collaborators bore some cost too. It is common practice for architects to work on spec for bids and only get paid if projects go ahead. It’s brutal stuff!
Whatever can be said about the Planning Brief and the latest scheme worked up to deliver it, it should be acknowledged that Rob Starr and whoever he has with him in the Starr Trust orbit, pulled off something extraordinary given he had no experience of doing a development before. What he did have was serious and acknowledged financial expertise. And no doubt too the heft of contacts to aid his judgment in organising the bid. Plus, he is local born and bred and the Starr Trust would tenant part of the scheme, complete with bookable community spaces, as a further benefit for the area. Unfortunately, the fact so little of the scheme’s content was divulged put the public’s back up quite a lot over and above horror at the (basic) bid design and scale of the project.
So what was all the delay about?
Crest Nicholson proceeded with the brakes on. They were bearing the multi-million Pound cost of post bid-delivery along with the usual affordable housing haggle and making the costings work. The profit level leaked away as time went on and viability issues spooked – AGAIN – as happened with the Karis/Frank Gehry scheme (2005-7). BHCC agreed to put £8m towards the cost of the leisure centre and a major Housing Infrastructue Fund grant was achieved as BHCC worked to save the scheme. But there were also rumblings in the financial press about Crest Nicholson too…. and a No-Deal BREXIT continued to haunt their worst fears.
Crest were slow to throw in the towel. The site is high profile, prominent and potentially highly prestigious. The January 24th Policy Resources and Regeneration Committee meeting was key and I had suggested to the e-list that this was a good opportunity for anyone to ask a Public Question on King Alfred. A relatively new supporter lobbed this in…. WATCH the webcast of the Public Question from Charles Harrison (public involvement) and later on in the agenda, when the King Alfred item came up (114) , listen to what Cllr Ollie Sykes had to say when he challenged Nick Hibberd with hard concerns about how that public question (with its supplementary) was answered. Mr. Harrison is a Quantity Surveyor. Please note this webcast is only viewable until September as the BHCC provider has changed and we will lose the archive. Which is, of course, outrageous.
That 24 January PRG meeting was very very revealing and very very angry and what is in the Minutes does not reflect its importance. Watch the whole 114 segment on KA to hear angry Cllrs unhappy about how Crest have treated the Council and spitting their frustrations at the officers for not keeping them in the loop, and, and, and. The Question from Mr. Harrison was a jaw dropper. Why hadn’t BHCC required the developers to post a performance bond…and what about the risk register Question….? Why was so much on trust just because Crest are a plc?
Crest were given until the end of January this year to sign on the dotted Developer Agreement line after which BHCC would be free to think again about the King Alfred site. Then the end of March, then because of BREXIT the situation was allowed to drift with an informal option to continue if BREXIT was resolved. An election was upcoming and presumably BHCC did not feel able to initiate any alternative over ensuing months anyway. But officers may have been having a think.
The Starr Trust were always poised, pen in hand, but Crest were dithering. Indeed in 2018 I was aware that Rob Starr had been to London to interview prospective Planning Agents to prepare the planning application material – five of them (all of whom, he rang to tell me, questioned him about saveHOVE!!!). He continued to work towards an outcome with total belief in the project.
And while Starr and BHCC waited….BREXIT got worse. The March 29 date of departure from the EU came and went….and clearly Crest have zero confidence in Boris Johnson and where things are going now – even as the Pound nosedives and a looming global recession is absolutely guaranteed. Crest dragged their heels, but Rob Starr at no point dithered and still wants to continue. So now we come to the ‘but’ from my opening paragraph.
Here we are folks…now what?
When Rob Starr rang me on ‘The Glorious 12th’ the Crest announcement was scheduled for the following week because Starr would be abroad for 5 days; but he did not trust Crest to honour that timing. I tipped off the Argus that a press release was due the following week, but if it came in the next few days, please call me. Glad I did that because Crest did not wait for Starr’s plane to leave UK airspace before it sent out the press release it had written WITH BHCC. That is what my mother used to call “dirty pool”. Why shaft the Starr Trust like that? What is that dishonourable behaviour all about? I do hope Cllrs will be asking officers about this and that BHCC has an explanation for why this was a Crest/BHCC press release and not a Starr/Crest/BHCC press release or even press conference to answer questions. And where was the new Council Leader, Nancy Platts, in all this?
Rob was on a flight to Croatia and I missed the Argus phone call on August 13 when the press release was received by the media. Rob Starr was able to give Frank le Duc an interview on the 13th in spite of Crest’s press releasing in his absence and Brighton & Hove News also duly reported from the press release as well, with the only comment Nancy Platts was to provide anyone.
August 14th I gave Andy Dickinson (ITV Meridian News) a few fast minutes for his allotted 90 seconds on King Alfred. And missed the 7am call from Sussex Radio who I am told found some old stuff from God knows when and clipped out a bit of me saying “I am over the moon”. Not happy about broadcasting THAT. I also learned that the Leader of the Council, Nancy ‘can do’ Platts had, apart from what she gave Frank le Duc (link), ignored requests from other media – ITV, the Argus to give a comment. She has also ignored emails from Rob Starr. I put it all down to her being a quite new councillor, as well as the new Leader of the Council – meaning she is too under-briefed about the situation to be able to engage. She is at the mercy of officers it seems to me and perhaps still trying to work out what is what.
Jody Doherty Cove got angry quotes for the Argus from Robert Nemeth who had been on the Project Board that had not met for a couple of years even and it is clear that the January 24 revelations inspired some of what he had to say, including a wish to see some heads roll.
Rob Starr plays with a straight bat. He is very open and people should not misread that as naivety and underestimate him. He told the Argus he wants to continue and has not stood by idly while Crest dithered. He has two potential replacement partners who could deliver the scheme – neither one of which requires a quick return on investment, both of which invest for very long-term security and returns and Starr believes BHCC “would be mad not to continue with him”.
BHCC are at a crossroads. Free to dump Starr after the January PRG decision and free to dump the Planning Brief that has brought nothing but grief THIS WHOLE CENTURY! They could also try to continue – after all a HUGE amount of money has been spent/invested. Do they throw the baby out with the bathwater? Get a new baby? Use borrowing powers and rewrite the Planning Brief and revise the City Plan policy? Will a cost/benefit analysis come to P&R this autumn? Where do we stand with freedom to tender if we do BREXIT?
Much STILL depends on…..BREXIT, but also on how the i360 debt disaster is going to be handled too. And then…there is the looming recession to prepare for too…..