1. What is Human Nature and how is it connected to the Phoenix?
Human Nature was founded in 2015 by Jonathan Smales and Michael Manolson, two former Greenpeace directors, and grew out of Beyond Green, a leading UK consultancy in sustainable development. Bringing together outstanding teams working in architecture, regenerative urbanism, sustainable construction and renewable energy, we create elegant and exceptional places with a focus on sharing more in a communal and sociable environment.
Our mission is to create a new ‘social imagination’ – demonstrating how it is possible to heal social divisions, create a fairer world, a creative and circular economy, enabling all to fulfil their capabilities in beautiful places while regenerating the global climate and nature.
The directors and much of the team live in Lewes and our offices are at Phoenix House, which will be retained and refitted for the new neighbourhood. We acquired the site, which covers the Phoenix Industrial Estate and North Street area, in April 2021.
2. There have been plans to develop this site before, what makes this project different?
There is indeed a long history of failed proposals on this site. The previous owner of the land, Santon, acquired planning consent in spring 2016 for its North Street Quarter, but, after five years with no progress made, changed its strategy and put the land up for sale. There are major cost implications associated with this brownfield development from site remediation and flood defences to infrastructure and various planning requirements such as the provision of land for the Health Hub and a new footbridge. The previous scheme did not plan enough homes to cover these costs, making the plan economically unviable. It was also, to our mind, not sufficiently sustainable.
We will therefore be submitting a new hybrid planning application in January 2023 to the South Downs National Park, the planning authority. We will be delivering a ‘mixed-use’ neighbourhood that increases the number of homes, which will vary from compact studios to spacious apartments with a few larger town houses, alongside community and commercial buildings and work space. We will also respect the heritage of the site and intend to retain some of the old industrial structures. A good and speedy consent is required to ensure this neglected land is finally put to use. If there are too many fundamental changes to the plan (such as a reduction in number of homes) the scheme will not be viable, while the loss of community buildings and workspace would create a car dependent residential estate rather than a place of opportunity and employment for the town.
3. How will the Phoenix benefit the rest of the town?
The Phoenix will bring an abundance of new public space to the town. This includes six public squares, three public gardens and three community buildings, containing cafés, a canteen and taproom, and sport, wellbeing and fitness centre. The neighbourhood has been carefully designed to complement and connect to the town. A new river walk will run the length of the site, rising to a Belvedere in the centre where a footbridge will connect to Malling Recreation Ground. A cycle route will run through the neighbourhood and across the Causeway. A new foreshore park connects the river’s edge to Eastgate Street. In due course and working with organisations like Cycle Lewes and Living Streets, we hope to influence a new policy on cycling throughout the town.
The neighbourhood will also bring much in the way of investment and employment. This includes £15m invested in new flood defences and river walk; an uplift of £26m for the local economy each year; and more than 500 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs. Human Nature will pay £7m as part of the Community Infrastructure Levy, designed to help local authorities raise funds for supporting infrastructure, facilities and services.
4. How is the Phoenix providing for disadvantaged groups?
Beyond the provision of new homes, the Phoenix is designed to provide opportunities for everyone to thrive and live a fulfilling and enjoyable life. This means providing workspaces that can support start-ups with a wide range of activities, including small-scale manufacturing, tech, service industries and makers. It also means providing education opportunities, especially for those who struggle to engage with the school system. We are already hosting East Sussex College on the site, providing facilities for their training courses in the construction industry, to begin in late 2022. We intend to grow this relationship, so that many of the 500 construction jobs that we will be creating can be filled by young people from Lewes.
Finally, it means providing sport and leisure opportunities, which are open and accessible to all. We already host Starfish, a music project that works with young people in Lewes, and we are planning to provide facilities for sport and well-being in the new Soap Factory.
5. What is your flood strategy?
We will add to the existing flood defences along the river with a new flood wall at a level of 6.15m above Ordnance Datum (mean sea-level), designed for a 120-year life. A bank will run to the east of the Recreation Grounds and Pells Pool, while a number of flood gates, integrated within the existing walls, will increase the current level of protection. A parapet wall will provide a passive level of protection to the Pelham Terrace neighbourhood, while demountable elements stored within the wall will rise to the 6.15m defence level in the event of a flood warning from the Environmental Agency (EA). A raised embankment at the southern end of Talbot Terrace will also protect the neighbourhood from flooding from the railway.
A sustainable drainage strategy has also been developed in close coordination with the EA and East Sussex County Council. All storm water will be discharged to the river, and storage will be created to hold storm water when high river levels do not permit river discharge. Storage in landscaped features – rain gardens – within the street corridors and some of the courtyards perform this function. The flood defences have been modelled to protect from one in a hundred year floods, plus the effect of the climate crisis on rainfall intensities and river levels, and considering overland flows from higher parts of town during intense storms.
6. How is the Phoenix providing for younger people?
The Phoenix will be a place where young people can live, work and play. The Soap Factory will contain bouldering, skateboarding, dance studios and provide a new home for Starfish, while generous public squares and gardens will give new places to socialise and skate. There will also be employment and training opportunities. In partnership with East Sussex College, we will be providing training programmes on the Phoenix, with some residential units potentially reserved for apprentices. There will also be a number of low-rent commercial units and work spaces on the site.
The Phoenix will contain many smaller units, compact apartments, some at social rent, and First Homes, enabling young people to stay in Lewes. The site will also enable affordable living through lower energy bills, access to car hire, a low-cost community canteen and shared facilities.
7. How is the Phoenix providing for older people?
The Phoenix has been designed to accommodate people of all ages, where intergenerational living and mixing is encouraged, fostering a sense of community and reducing loneliness. Many elements of the Phoenix will particularly appeal to older people, with the principle of shared living – of space, amenities and ideas – often highlighted in our focus groups. This will be a safe and accessible neighbourhood – with streets for people, not cars – and all amenities within a five-minute walk. The Phoenix will also appeal to those looking to downsize, with many one and two-bedrooms homes available. The Foundry Health Care Centre will also be located on the site.
8. How will the influx of population affect schools and other infrastructure in Lewes?
In line with advice given to us by the Lewes District Council, we will be building a nursery on the Phoenix, but not a school. As above, the Phoenix will generate £7m through the Community Infrastructure Levy. The planning authority, the South Downs National Park, will retain 75% of this money with the remaining 25% given directly to Lewes Town Council, to spend as they see fit.
9. What is the parking strategy for residents of the Phoenix?
The Phoenix will be a low-traffic neighbourhood, made up of green, quiet streets where it is safe for children to play. This will be achieved, firstly, through the creation of a Mobility Hub, which will sit at the southern end of the site, off the Causeway. The building will contain 350 parking spaces, including 50 for an electric car club and hire service. The allocation of parking spaces is, of course, far lower than in traditional developments. Car parking spaces will be allocated on a needs basis (for example, tradespeople who need a van for work), with Blue Badge parking on the street and at the Health Hub. There will also be drop-off space on streets and a last-mile delivery service, operated from the Mobility Hub.
It is very clear that the Phoenix will not appeal to everyone, but research by our transport consultants WSP has found a strong appetite for this way of living, particularly among younger generations. Various studies also point to wide support for car clubs, when efficient and affordable. The impact that sharing vehicles can have is huge: for example, one club car replaces 13.4 private vehicles
, and can save up to £3,500 a year for those who drive less than 8,000 miles per year.
The Phoenix has been designed around the principle of the five-minute neighbourhood, where most daily needs can be met within a short walk. It will be well connected to other parts of the town, through existing streets, new footpaths and a pedestrian bridge to Malling. It is a 10-minute walk to the train station.
10. What about the loss of car-parking spaces at Brook Street car park?
Human Nature bought this plot from the Lewes District Council with existing planning permission, meaning this site has long been approved for redevelopment. There will be a gradual loss of car parking spaces over time, but with limited change in availability prior to 2025 when residents begin to move in. By that point, we would expect to see a town-wide parking strategy developed by the relevant authorities and we will, of course, be delighted to be involved in these decisions. The town will have access to the car share and hire facilities on the Phoenix and the last-mile freight services, with our ambition to reduce car ownership reliance in Lewes. We are exploring the possibility of adding an extra storey to the Mobility Hub, which would create additional unallocated parking spaces for visitors.
11. How will you stop residents parking in neighbouring streets?
The Phoenix is a neighbourhood that prioritises people, not cars, and will be marketed as such. To many, this is its greatest selling point (others, of course, will prefer to live elsewhere), meaning people who live here will be less likely to own a private vehicle. It is up to the Council to develop a town-wide parking strategy, but no Phoenix residents will be given parking permits for surrounding areas. As above, the most convenient forms of transport will be walking, cycling and car share, hire and club.
12. How are you ensuring the neighbourhood will remain accessible?
The Phoenix has been designed as an inclusive and accessible environment to allow all users to enjoy it with confidence, dignity and independence. Public spaces will be designed with an emphasis on easy orientation, good legibility and clear routes through the site for all users. We are working with local specialist groups including Lewes Area Access Group to address the needs of everyone including wheelchair and rollator users, guide dog assisted, cane users and those with visual impairments.
The new homes proposed across the site will exceed national requirements for accessibility. Lift access will be provided for the majority of homes above ground floor, exceeding the requirements of the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) for Accessible & Adaptable dwellings and Wheelchair Accessible dwellings. Blue Badge holders will be able to park near their homes and priority will be given in the Mobility Hub to users of the Health Hub. All new public buildings will be fully accessible and meet the requirements of the Equality Act.
13. Why are you delivering a Health Hub?
We are delivering the Health Hub on request of the NHS and Foundry Healthcare. The latter wrote the specification for the building, and is working in close consultation with Mole, the architects we have appointed. Foundry Healthcare will shortly be releasing a statement with more details.
14. How do I get to the Health Hub?
There will be reserved spaces at the Mobility Hub, a 150-metre walk, and small amount of parking at the Health Hub for eligible users (those with accessibility issues and Blue Badge holders), as well as drop-off and pick-up, ambulance parking and drop-off, and a shuttle bus service.
15. How will you minimise the impact of construction traffic on the surrounding areas?
We will create a new junction access to the site directly from the Causeway, for construction traffic only, keeping vehicles off the one-way system, Brook Street and North Street. Once the neighbourhood is complete, it will become the entrance to the Mobility Hub. Furthermore, the modern methods of construction reduce traffic movements by up to 80%. The on-site manufacture of components, such as timber, will reduce heavy-vehicle traffic even further, while we are exploring the idea of using the river to transport materials.
16. How is the project funded?
Human Nature and its local investors have funded the land acquisition and the current programme of work on planning, design, engineering. An exemplar development, in terms of social impact and value, innovation in construction, mobility, housing choice, placemaking, public engagement, its use of a brownfield site, and breakthrough boldness in regard to the climate and nature emergencies, the Phoenix correlates strongly with national government policy. It is therefore eligible for funding from Homes England, ethical investors and debt providers, specialist investment for affordable homes and bespoke investment for ventures such as the hotel, energy grid and mobility services.
Planning permission on site was previously acquired by Santon from the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), for what was known as the North Street Quarter. However, this scheme was not economically viable and therefore never came to fruition. Human Nature’s plans have been meticulously put together to ensure the scheme is viable and deliverable but it is a wickedly difficult site and challenging ambition and needs an enabling mindset with the planning and local authorities and a good planning consent.
17. What is meant by ‘affordable housing’?
We are working with local people, the Town and District Council and the Tenants of Lewes District, to decide how best to make some of the apartments on the site available to people on lower incomes within the available budget. There is a range of options to consider:
- Providing homes with rent determined in relation to average household income (the Lewes Low Cost Housing model)
- Providing smaller flats (one and two bed) that will be cheaper to rent or buy than three and four bed flats and houses
- Providing homes for shared ownership with the rent reduced by a percentage depending on the size of the share which is owned
- Providing homes discounted to market value (either to rent or buy) by a given percentage (the current national policy requirement is 80%)
- Providing First Homes for first-time buyers at 30% reduction in the sale price of the home, capped at a maximum sale price of £250,000
Our economic appraisal suggests the ability of the scheme as planned to provide 220 policy-compliant affordable homes and additional compact apartments to ensure the Phoenix is a mixed-income, multi-tenure neighbourhood, which people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy together. It is worth noting here that we are bound by the exceptional infrastructure and other costs that come with this challenging brownfield site notably the flood defences) and for homes of any type to be built, the scheme must be viable. There is also much we can do and are planning to do when it comes to affordable living. While housing is often the biggest household budgetary item there are of course many others that if reduced significantly can make a real and important difference to families and individuals. Our homes will be super energy-efficient, supplied with inexpensive renewable heat and power. Meanwhile, the co-mobility services remove the need for most to own, park, insure, fuel, service and repair a car, while a community canteen will provide high-quality affordable meals, and a Library of Things will mean utensils can be borrowed rather than bought.
18. Why are so many buildings four and five storeys high?
The scarcity of land and the climate and nature crises dictate that we cannot continue to build two-storey detached and semi-detached houses with driveways and large private gardens. But there are many advantages to compact apartment living – not least how they, when designed carefully, can encourage shared living and foster strong communities. Complete with generous balconies, roof gardens, courtyard gardens, play spaces, soft edges to the blocks with benches and extensive planting, and outstanding views, the primarily double-aspect apartments with good natural light and good air flow, are very desirable spaces to inhabit.
Apartment living works particularly well when there is excellent local amenity which at the Phoenix is of course here in abundance. Situated at the edge of the town centre (with its superb shops, cafes and businesses) and countryside edge, with parks on two sides, a river, a swimming pool, a short walk to the Depot cinema complex and station or into nearby downland landscape, Phoenix is blessed with amenity to support the higher density living. But we have also designed-in beautiful streets, squares and gardens, a river walk, an elevated garden – the Belvedere – with wonderful views – and local cafes, a grocer, studios, offices and maker’s spaces and galleries. In the case of the Phoenix, a certain building density – height and massing – is a must: the scheme simply would not be viable if we were to build in any other way.
However, we have listened to the analysis from our landscape and visual impact consultants, the Park, and concerns from some members of the public and have reduced the storey heights across a number of buildings. Since the Design Festival in September 2021, when we revealed early plans for the neighbourhood, the heights of the following buildings have been reduced: the the Foundry Apartments, Brook Street Co-Housing, Foreshore Apartments, Phoenix Riverside Apartments and Lofts, the Foundry Hotel and Rooftop Garden, Brook Street Galleries, Ouse Villa Apartments and North Street Apartments and Lofts. It is worth noting, that at 100 dwellings per hectare (DPH), the Phoenix will be on average lower than historic town infill in the UK (80-140 DPH).
19. How will the shared areas be managed and maintained over time?
An estate management company, owned by Human Nature, will manage all communal aspects of the neighbourhood and retain ownership of all green infrastructure, public realm, sustainable drainage and flood defences. Tenants and residents of the site will be invited to participate in the running of the company, with a service charge proportioned between residential and commercial units. Public spaces will be protected in perpetuity and any surplus made by the estate management company will be reinvested into community infrastructure.