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.