“The i-sore”: Will Brighton’s new i360 observation tower ever win over the public?

An artist's impression of the completed tower. Image: Marks Barfield.

For the last 16 years a collection of Brighton-based photographers has produced a calendar highlighting the events, buildings, and characters that give the city its flamboyant appeal. This year’s edition features a photograph of a doughnut on a stick, with the seafront blurred in the background. The work, by Alex Bamford, is described as “an early artist’s impression” of the i360.

The irreverent image captures the ambivalent attitude to the enormous observation tower which now looms over the derelict ruins of the West Pier. Many residents regard is as a disfiguration of the splendid Georgian environs, dubbing it the “i-sore”. Others argue that it will regenerate the area, pulling in more leisure and business visitors.

The 162-metre tower is the brainchild of husband-and-wife architect team David Marks and Julia Barfield, who were also responsible for the London Eye. When it opens this summer, a pod attached to the pole will accommodate up to 200 people at a time, so that, on a good day, they’ll be able to enjoy views of the Channel, the South Downs and neighbouring Worthing. The ride will cost £15, and a discount has been promised to locals.

Below, a 400-seat beachside venue will be used for dining, conferences and events. Corporate hire charges range from £1,000 to £40,000.


Marks Barfield was itself unable to find private investors to back the scheme, which is set to cost £46m. Some £36m of the cost will be covered by a Public Works Loan Board loan, negotiated by the city council when still controlled by the previous Green adminstration. The loan was agreed by a committee of 10 councillors, with seven voting in favour and three against. 

Although the current Labour leadership was against the loan when in opposition, it is making the best of the situation. The council claims the profit on the interest from the loan plus business rates will earn it more than £1m per year.

“Now that the Greens and Tories have voted for this to go ahead and construction has started,” says council leader Warren Morgan, “we sincerely hope that the predictions for visitor numbers for the viewing platform are not over optimistic, and that revenue is enough to pay off the taxpayer loan.”

But the fine detail of how this will be achieved is being kept under wraps. The council has refused to release the financial details contained in a consultant’s business review of the i360.  The document contains the rationale for pricing policies, projections for customer numbers, profit projections, staffing levels and overhead costs.

Last September, I submitted a Freedom of Information request asking that the full report be published. The council stuck to its guns. Following my appeal, the Information Commissioner’s Office decided that it had not been shown how disclosure of the information would prejudice the operator’s or the council’s commercial interests. The Commissioner also noted that it has not been shown that there would be an actionable claim for breach of confidence. It ordered the council to release the full report.

Now, however, the council has decided it will not accept the ICO ruling. It will instead appeal to the first-tier tribunal, spending thousands of pounds of council taxpayers’ money in the process.

A council press officer told me: “As a major new commercial enterprise the Brighton i360 is still in the process of negotiating with prospective suppliers and sponsors.  Publishing background pricing assumptions for new contractual relationships can prevent a fair negotiation of the most beneficial terms. 

“The council is therefore appealing the decision of the Information Commissioner that this information be placed in the public domain.”

The views from the top of the observation tower may prove to be impressive – but clear sight of the business case for the i360 remains a distant prospect.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.