“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 mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.