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.