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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.