Our Valley Gardens mustn’t become a political football

View of new Valley Gardens from Greens plan

Detail taken from the Greens’ original plans for Valley Gardens. The view is across Victoria Gardens towards the King & Queen pub.

You could almost hear people all over Brighton breathing a sigh of relief when the plan to redesign Valley Gardens was revealed.  Although I had some initial misgivings – Brighton’s majority Green council had a somewhat spotty record with infrastructural projects – it was reassuring to know that the council recognized the unsuitability of the current layout and was prepared to do something about it.

Valley Gardens, the green strip running down the middle of the city from The Level to the seafront, has the potential to be so much better than it is now.

The current design is dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, with a complicated road layout leading to confusion over which direction traffic is moving in.

Greens' plan for Valley Gardens - water feature outside St Peter's church

Detail taken from the Greens’ original plans for Valley Gardens. This shows the location of one of the new water features, outside St Peter’s church.

The Green council’s plans had lots to admire. They included:

  • A simplified traffic flow that put public transport on the west of the Gardens and private vehicles to the east
  • More trees, including new elms and other interesting varieties
  • New water features
  • More paths, making it easier to walk across the Gardens
  • More planting on the streets either side of the Gardens, making them seem less like an ‘island’ in the middle of traffic.

Lastly, the Greens pledged the scrap the ugly and incongruous Mazda fountain. The fountain was originally designed for the British Empire Exhibition in 1925, and was then donated to Brighton. It used to feature coloured light bulbs that were illuminated at night, but nowadays all it does is squat like a massive metal carbuncle, occasionally spraying water but otherwise simply acting as an eyesore.

The Mazda Fountain, Dominic Alves, Flickr

‘The Mazda Fountain’ by Dominic Alves – from Flickr. CC-BY-SA.

Alas, the Greens’ plan ran into trouble after a new majority-Labour council was elected on May 7.

Soon after the election, leader of the new council Warren Morgan announced that the scheme would be put under review.

Labour have ruled out scrapping the scheme, as it would be embarrassing for them to give back the £14m of government funding that has already been secured.  They have, however, suggested a number of changes – including saving the Mazda fountain.

This may have been influenced by the fact that more than 1,500 city residents signed a petition to keep the fountain; this is a shame, as I suspect that there is a far larger silent majority of city dwellers who would rather see the back of it.

Some of Labour’s proposals are encouraging. They want to:

  • Make sure the final designs keep traffic flowing at peak times, especially at junctions
  •  Make the design fit with the growing Brighton and Hove of the future
  • Put the most senior people at the council in charge of the project to minimise disruption
  • And make sure that the final phase of the project is changed so that it brings the maximum benefit to the seafront.

But the scheme’s Green origins could cause discord in the council as various factions argue over the way it should be delivered.

The revamp of the Gardens has the potential to breathe new life into a crucial artery through the city, making it a place to stop and relax instead of a busy, stressful river of traffic. In order to achieve this, our leaders must avoid getting bogged down in petty point-scoring or pursue change for change’s sake.

We need Valley Gardens to be a success for the people, rather than a political football.

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