Can Brighton really save its West Pier?

Oh dear. Brighton West Pier, 2003. Image: Getty.

It was Voltaire who cracked the excellent joke that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. In a similar, but less amusing, vein the West Pier Trust in Brighton seems keen to focus on anything but a viable plan to restore the forlorn pile of metal in the English Channel. 

When it opened in 1866, the pier, featuring an innovative grid of iron girders supporting a wooden platform, was regarded as the masterpiece of Victorian civil engineer Eugenius Birch, and as jewel in the seaside resort’s crown. By the time the pier closed for good, a little over a hundred years later, it had lost its lustre. 

The trust bought the derelict structure from the council for £100 in 1983. Large sections fell off in 2002, and the following year, a mysterious fires devastated what was left. Dramatic footage of the burning pier collapsing into the sea was featured in Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s performance at the Brits this year.

Four years ago, when Marks Barfield, the architectural firm behind the London Eye, was loaned £46m from public funds to build the i360, a tower, restaurant and event space on Brighton seafront, it agreed to pay the trust, which owns the land around it, an annual rent calculated on a sliding scale from £100,000 to £250,000, based on visitor numbers. The money was supposed to be used to restore the pier and smarten up the surrounding area.

But Rachel Clark, who has been the trust's chief executive since 1993, says that the priority these days is the restoration of a Victorian kiosk on the promenade. She said the trust plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to reinstate an 1866 octagonal kiosk recovered from the pier in 1996.

“Our current project is the restoration of a salvaged pier kiosk which has been in storage for many years,” she says. “It will allow people to enjoy an exquisite key element of the West Pier very close to its original site.” 

That said, the trust has only just started the design stage of this project, the outcome of which will be a detailed breakdown of its costs. “Until now we have used a roughly estimated £750,000 figure. For a convincing fundraising campaign we cannot use an approximate figure, it needs to be costed as precisely as possible. Crowdfunding will be one of several fundraising avenues we will be exploring.”


Meanwhile, City Partnerships, a Brighton-based development consortium, has put forward a £50m proposal to rescue the crumbling pier including funding for the restoration of the kiosk. 

John Reagan, a director at City Partnerships, is best known in the city for his role as chairman of Brighton & Hove Seaside Community Homes. “Our plan will deliver a new pier for the community in Brighton and Hove,” he says. “It will not be in competition with the nearby Brighton Palace Pier, but will be in the spirit of the original West Pier and its creator Eugenius Birch. It will be free to access for all.”

But in an email, Rachel Clark told lawyers acting on behalf of City Partnerships that the West Pier Trust board “does not consider that the restoration of the kiosk and the building of a new West Pier are linked projects”.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that this is a polite way of telling the entrepreneurs to take a long walk off a non-existent pier.  When I met with Reagan he went to some lengths to impress on me his belief that the Trust has blocked numerous schemes over the years . Clark, for her part  is  adamant that none of the ideas put forward has been practical.

“The trust is still a small organisation and we are taking one step at a time,” she says. “We have never given up on the pier and in 2015 we ran a public consultation to see if people wanted a new West Pier. The majority of respondents were very supportive of the idea, as long as it resulted in a low density, minimally commercial pier.”

She concludes: “Once the kiosk is restored we will invite interested parties to submit suitable proposals for this ambitious project.”

If, that is, there is anything left in the sea to rescue.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.