The original historic North Laine was in decline
In the post war period the area north of Church Street to Preston Circus, the original historic North Laine, was in decline as more and more businesses began to move out of the city centre and the housing stock suffered from lack of care from private landlords. Following a Council decision in 1957 much of the area north of Trafalgar Street began to be demolished. Streets of terraced housing like Blackman Street, Redcross Street, London Street, New York Street and Providence Place were just swept away in the early 1960s to make way for the new tower blocks that still dominate our skyline. This was the dawning of the age of the car, when local councils were trying to maximise the use of the car and bring it into the heart of the city in larger and larger numbers.
Wilson and Womersley prepared a town plan based on car use
In 1967 the Council appointed planning consultants Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley to prepare a plan for the town. Their Interim Plan of 1968 envisaged a town that put the car at the heart of everything, with new roads running east-west along the line of the railway, roads enclosing the town centre, and a road to bring traffic right into the heart of the city to new car parks in the Church Street area. This new road would go right through the middle of North Laine and would be partly elevated resulting in large swathes of North Laine being either demolished to make way for the road or have the road passing close to and above many of the houses of North Laine. Had the scheme gone ahead this would have been the end of the North Laine as we know it today.
The Wilson Plan envisaged an overhead road going through the heart of North Laine
Ken Fines and his team prepared an alternative Plan
The Wilson-Womersley Plan never saw the light of day for in November 1973 a new Plan for Brighton was produced by planners within Brighton County Borough led by Kenneth Fines. Ken and his team rejected the philosophy of the Wilson-Womersley Plan, favouring conservation, advocating public transport, and rejecting the network of roads in favour of an external bypass.
Ken became Borough Planning Officer and reviewed the conservation areas
The following year (1974) Ken Fines became Borough Planning Officer for the newly reorganised Brighton Borough Council and following the vision outlined in his Greater Brighton Structure Plan carried out a review of conservation areas in Brighton. The town already had 11 conservation areas and Ken recommended five new areas including the area north of Church Street, which had been Brighton's industrial centre. Ken believed that this area (to be subsequently named by him North Laine) had enough if its Victorian townscape remaining to warrant it becoming a conservation area. He recognised that although there weren't any individually significant or famous buildings, the area as a whole had an important architectural and historic interest.
The letter from Ken Fines to the newly formed Community Association saying that he had suggested the conservation area be called North Laine.
A policy of neglect leading to demolition
The area though was in rapid decline and made worse by a policy of benign neglect followed by the Council, which encouraged the demolition of buildings. As well as the whole of the area north of Trafalgar Street having already been demolished, there were houses all over North Laine lying vacant, sometimes with squatters in them, sometimes even with trees growing inside them! It wasn't just private landlords who allowed their properties to decline through neglect because the Council owned many properties in the area that lay empty or were occupied by squatters. Fighting this policy of neglect was a group of local residents and traders who also believed that North Laine had something special that was worth saving.
A survey and a meeting
A survey of local residents was organised, followed up by a meeting at the former school in Upper Gardner Street. People flooded into the meeting, held on 21st January 1976. What was clear was that local residents loved the area and wanted it saved. Ken Fines had been invited to the meeting and he listened carefully. The very first edition of what became the 'North Laine Runner' reported on the meeting, commenting that "...a major worry of the people present could be summed up in the phrase, 'environmental degradation and blight' " and that "...the Council has contributed to blight by demolishing and boarding up old houses, allowing empty spaces to become overgrown, or by leasing the gaps between houses as car-parking spaces. As soon as the Council buys up five houses in a row, then 'bingo', they have a hat trick and knock down the middle three, leaving the two end ones as supports for inhabited housing".
A residents' association was set upThe residents organised themselves into a residents' association, which they called the Central Brighton Community Association, and produced a newsletter called the 'North Road Runner' to fight the demolitions and save the area. By attending that first meeting Ken Fines realised that he was of the same mind as the residents and in April 1976 gave a talk to the residents at which he revealed his plans to designate the area as a conservation area.
Ken chose the historic name for the areaKen later decided to adopt the historic name for the area, North Laine, and with the approval of the council and central government, the North Laine Conservation Area came into being in 1977.
Concerns of the new community association
By the time of the creation of the North Laine Conservation Area, the residents' association had been renamed the North Laine Community Association (in May/June 1976) and the newsletter had become the 'North Laine Runner'. The concerns of the residents were outlined in the first 'North Road Runner' and included housing, traffic, planning, conservation, parking - all concerns of the NLCA today. The NLCA continues to work towards improving the quality of life for residents in these areas and towards ensuring that the architectural and historic heritage that we have is maintained.
The planning blight was arrested
With Ken and the residents and traders working together the policy of planning blight was arrested and the demolitions eventually stopped. With the Council taking a decision to build houses on a derelict site in Frederick Street, residents knew there was a future for the area and began to invest in their properties, and eventually the Council began to offer grants for property renovation.
The first edition of the NLCA newsletter, 'The North Laine Runner', then called the North Road Runner
Ken Fines and the community association saved the area from the bulldozer
Without the work of Ken Fines and the NLCA in the 1970s we would not have North Laine as it is today. It would have disappeared under the Council's bulldozer a long time ago. We owe a debt to Ken and the early pioneers of the NLCA. The Blue Plaque is a suitable reminder of their contribution towards saving an important part of the city.
Remember why North Laine is a conservation area
Let us hope that when people see the plaque they take time to think about Ken Fines and why North Laine is a Conservation Area. The Blue Plaque, which is on the wall of Infinity Foods facing Kensington Gardens, has the words 'Our hero - saved and named the North Laine Conservation Area' and without the work of Ken Fines and the then emerging North Laine Community Association and North Laine traders, the area would not be as it is today - a thriving part of the city that has an atmosphere quite different from the corporate world of Churchill Square and Western Road.