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.

 
 
 
 

Is Manchester doing enough to fight its air pollution crisis?

Clouds over Manchester. Image: Getty.

In June 2018, think tank IPPR released a report calling Greater Manchester’s pollution levels “lethal and illegal”. The report called on mayor Andy Burnham to urgently ramp up measures to improve air quality and for central government to give him the tools to do so.

Yet one year on, the Northern Quarter Forum has had to fight tooth and nail to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours to celebrate Clean Air Week. This, coupled with the Great Ancoats Street fiasco – a multi-million pound plan to create a “European style boulevard” without any cycle infrastructure – raises red flags.

So what’s actually being done to fight Manchester’s air pollution crisis – and is it enough?

An ambitious pledge

Andy Burnham has pledged to make Manchester a leading green city in Europe. It’s an ambitious goal, considering central Manchester currently has the highest rate of emergency admissions for asthma in England – over double the national average – and Manchester is the second-worst council area in England for inhalable particulate matter. Greater Manchester is also the most congested region outside of London, with 152 roads in breach of legal NO2 levels.

The 152 roads in breach of air pollution levels. Image: TfGM.

 

All in all, 1,200 lives are lost each year due to air pollution. If that number is to be brought down to zero, Manchester better look for inspiration.

Oslo, European Green Capital 2019, prioritises pedestrians and cyclists in the city centre, and is transitioning to a completely car-free city centre. All public transport will run on renewable energy from 2020, and over 700 on-street parking spaces were removed, replaced with cycle lanes, pocket parks, and seating areas. Since the 1980’s Oslo has had tolled ring roads, and in 2017 introduced a further congestion charge.

The message is clear: becoming a leading green city means reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Switching to electric cars won’t be enough to save us, because worn tyres and brakes produce particulate matter, the micro plastic particles penetrating the deepest parts of our lungs and bloodstream.

What’s required, instead, is improved public transport – currently often both less convenient and more expensive than driving – as well as prioritising walking and cycling.

So with Burnham’s ambitious – and worthy – pledge in mind, let’s see what Manchester is doing.

Is enough being invested in public transport?

Last year, Burnham revealed his “Congestion Deal”, which includes a £122m Bus Priority Package (shepherding 9,000 more passengers a week) and spending £83m on 27 new trams. The deal also commits 40,000 more seats on commuter trains, and trebles the number of electric vehicle charging points in the region to 1,000.

Manchester’s Clean Air Plan also includes £116m government funded schemes for HGV’s, buses, taxis, and businesses upgrading to cleaner vehicles, as well as loans with preferential rates for those taking advantage of the funds.

While that may look like a lot of investment, it pales in comparison to the nearly £6bn being considered on road schemes. Moreover, research has repeatedly shown the benefits of road expansion are short-lived, “inducing” more car journeys leading to increased congestion and pollution overall.

The biggest cue for public transport in Manchester is Burnham’s recent proposal to franchise buses, bringing them back under public control. This will allow GMCA to develop a truly integrated public transport system and ensure all communities are served, not just those that are most profitable. It will also allow them to set the fares, bringing them in line with those in London; whereas it costs £4 in Greater Manchester for a single bus fare, the rate is currently capped at £1.50 in the capital.

That being said, there’s still a pressing need for more funding. When I asked the Clean Air Plan folk at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) what’s the one thing government could do to help, they told me this: “To agree a devolved multi-year transport funding settlement with Greater Manchester” that includes ongoing funding, “to help us to transform public transport services to meet modern expectations as people experience in other cities across Europe.”

Despite the progress being made, as long as central government doesn’t provide new funds – and the bulk of existing funding is pumped into motorways instead – Manchester won’t become a leading green city.


Is walking and cycling being prioritised?

Burnham’s Congestion Deal also outlined a “Streets for All” approach, in which streets would be designed “for all road users” to enable alternatives to driving.

Chris Boardman became Greater Manchester’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner in 2017 with an initial £160m earmarked to begin creating “Bee Network” safe cycle routes throughout the city – making Manchester a truly European city. That funding has now been allocated, and the first projects are coming to fruition.

However, it only accounts for 11 per cent of the £1.5bn needed to complete the Bee Network, and Boardman along with five other leading cycling commissioners are demanding government commit long-term funding to safe cycle infrastructure.

Boardman calls painted bike lanes a “waste of public money”, which encourage drivers to speed up, endangering cyclists. “Actual” bike infrastructure is needed, such as segregated cycle lanes.

He’s pointed out that government has recently agreed to spend £1.4bn on upgrading a roundabout near Bedford and building a new 10-mile dual carriageway – two projects that together may save drivers 10 minutes of travel. For the same price, Manchester could have a fully integrated cycle network that would revolutionise the way people travel around the city. Central and local government simply aren’t prioritising the measures needed to reduce air pollution.

That’s why Manchester City Council’s announcement of the £9.1m “Great Ancoats Street improvement scheme” – maintaining five lanes of motor traffic with no cycle infrastructure along one of the city’s most polluted and dangerous thoroughfares – has provoked anger and despair.

Cyclists protest on Great Ancoats Street. Image: David Saddington/author provided.

The council’s justification – “This scheme does not incorporate a segregated cycleway, as we need to balance the needs of different road users” – Illustrates a business-as-usual mindset of car dominated planning. It’s completely at odds with the scale of the challenge Manchester faces in turning around its air quality crisis.

There’s also a long way to go towards prioritising walking and cycling in the city centre. When Manchester City Council refused permission to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours for the community to celebrate Clean Air Week, Northern Quarter Forum members took matters into their own hands.

They developed a plan to reroute the 13 buses that traverse Lever Street and presented it to the Highways department (essentially having done their job for them). Then it was actually Labour party councillor Angeliki Stogia who took the reins and pushed the request through.

Apart from Stogia, this lack of support for a resident’s group advancing what should be the council’s agenda is troubling. This, along with Great Ancoats Street, suggests a council not taking a “Streets for All” approach seriously, wand lacks the will to prioritise alternatives to driving in the city centre.

Is a congestion charge being introduced?

In the past year, the main focus has been developing a “Clean Air Zone”, covering all of Greater Manchester. The scheme would charge the most polluting buses, taxis, heavy and lights goods vehicles entering the zone.

This Clean Air Zone isn’t a congestion charge because it doesn’t charge polluting private vehicles. However, congestion charges are shown to be highly effective.

When Stockholm introduced its congestion charge 11 years ago, it was dubbed “the most expensive way ever devised to commit political suicide.” The charge began with just 25 per cent public approval – but when congestion dropped by 20 per cent, public opinion changed rapidly. After a seven month trial period, a referendum made the scheme permanent, and public approval now stands near 70 per cent. Revenue from the scheme has funded new metro lines and active travel improvements.

TfGM argue that charging private cars will hurt the poorest in society. However, ONS data show that while nearly all households in the richest 10 per cent by income own a car, just a third of those in the lowest 10 per cent own one. And nearly all homeowners have at least one car, compared to less than half of households in social housing.

In reality, households on lower incomes are far more likely to rely on public transport, and are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality.

The elephant in the room: the airport

Burnham has pledged to make Greater Manchester carbon neutral by 2038.

It’s difficult to imagine how this is possible, considering that Manchester Airport – 65 per cent owned by Manchester City Council – is expanding. Over the next 20 years, it plans to double passenger numbers.

Globally, aviation emissions are growing so quickly that by 2020 they’re projected to be 70 per cent higher than in 2005 and are currently 26 per cent higher than in 2013. If it were a country, global aviation emissions would be within the top 10 emitters. Here in Manchester, Pete Abel of Manchester Friends of the Earth says the current airport expansion plans would blow “our carbon budget twice over”.

A lack of follow-through

The stakes are high, the consequences dire. Strong, decisive action is required to rid Manchester of its poisonous air.

While Burnham has the vision, he doesn’t have the power. Without buy-in and consistent action from the 10 councils as well as central government, there’s only so much that can be accomplished – and it won’t be enough.

Public transport must become convenient and cheaper than driving. All city streets must enable walking and cycling. Mancunians – as well as city dwellers around the country – must hold elected representatives to account, let them know "business as usual" is no longer acceptable, and demand action to match the rhetoric.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Manchester Confidential