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i360 back on track
After years of talks, proposals, setbacks and promises, the i360 appears to be back on track. With officials and developers drawing up a new deal, The Argus can exclusively reveal the taxpayer is now set to carry the cost of the majority of multimillion pound project. BEN JAMES and TIM RIDGWAY report.
It is a £38 million project which is designed to regenerate the whole of our historic seafront.
But despite the promises of hundreds of jobs and tens of thousands of extra visitors, developers behind the i360 viewing tower appeared to have come up short when admitting private funding fell through last year.
After months of uncertainty, The Argus can reveal the plans for a 139-metre viewing tower are back on the agenda with a new deal set to be presented to Brighton and Hove city councillors next month.
However, it will come at a price with the taxpayer set to be saddled with a £36 million loan to ensure the sky-high dream becomes a reality.
Last night, the local authority refused to comment on the exact details of the deal, which comes as |the local authority needs to make |£24 million of savings in the 2014/15 financial year.
Instead, Council leader Jason Kitcat said: “It’s back on the agenda and we continue to be committed to the regeneration of the seafront.”
Marks Barfield, the developers behind the London Eye, first revealed they were interested in bringing an attraction to Brighton seafront in March 2006.
With a 200-capacity viewing platform that moves up a spike, the i360 promised to bring much needed investment into the area near the West Pier.
But the recession dampened private backers’ appetites and with developers missing deadline after deadline, Brighton and Hove City Council helped draw up a new deal in May 2012 where it would draw down £14 million of funding from the government.
Together with a £3 million loan from the Local Enterprise Partnership, this left Marks Barfield with only about half the funding to find.
But developers admitted in November their own backers had pulled out.
Now, The Argus understands the local authority has drawn up a new agreement where it will provide £36 million – more than twice the amount previously agreed.
The loan would come from the Government’s Public Sector Loans Board, which stumps up cash for projects set to improve the economy, and be repaid over 27 years.
The council last night refused to confirm a £36.2 million loan was being put forward.
A statement said: “The council and the Local Enterprise Partnership (Coast 2 Capital) have been having ongoing discussions with the i360 team for some months regarding the best way to resolve final funding issues and achieve a start on site in 2014.
“A series of proposals are under discussion and it is hoped that a report will be taken to the council’s policy and resources committee in February.”
The attraction has always had a mixed reaction with some seeing the obvious benefits to tourism.
Yet others describe it an eyesore while some simply said the city couldn’t afford it.
Projections for the attraction are positive with experts comparing it to the likes of the London Eye, Blackpool Tower and the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth.
It is expected some 800,000 visitors would flock to the i360 each year.
As well as prompting tourists to spend an extra £5 million a year in the city, it will encourage 18,000 a year to stay overnight in nearby hotels and B and Bs.
It is expected to create 150 jobs directly and about 440 jobs locally, while boosting businesses citywide.
The structure itself will be 139 metres high offering views of the South Downs and over to Beachy Head.
Once open, the rival Brighton Wheel, operating near Brighton’s Palace Pier, would have to cease operating under an agreement with the council.
News of the new funding agreement has split opinion once more.
Soozie Campbell, chairman of Brighton and Hove Tourism Alliance, welcomed the news provided other projects were not sidelined.
She said: “It is a good thing. My only concern is that by giving so much money to one project others could be overlooked. For example the seafront arches.
“It is a good way of financing it because the council makes money at the same time. What’s not to like?
“So I think it is good news as long as others don’t get overlooked.”
But Labour group leader Warren Morgan said his party could no longer support the plans.
He said: “I voted for this at planning committee in 2006 and we have supported it all along.
“However the last time the council was asked to increase the amount the council was putting in we said we were drawing a line.
“Now that the council is being asked to commit to borrow an enormous amount, we can no longer support the risk to the council and taxpayers - not at a time when the Government is cutting £100 million from our funding and we are facing increasing in social care and seafront infrastructure costs.”
Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the council’s Conservative Group, said: “We have yet to see any details of what is being proposed and will have to study them carefully when we have been briefed in the next couple of weeks.
“However, we had reservations about the council’s current proposed £14 million loan so it will be difficult to justify increasing the loan by almost three times this amount.”
A regular update to councillors, which will be discussed on Thursday, tells members the local authority is “continuing to work with the various partners to achieve financial close” on the i360.
The report adds that strengthening works to the west of the planned site have “largely been completed” with work to the east set to be finished in autumn 2014.
It concludes: “The council remains in active discussion with Marks Barfield Architects the developer for the site, regarding a final funding solution in order to ensure a start on site in the coming months.”
Valerie Paynter, of Save Hove conservationist group, said: “It is an absolutely ridiculous proposal.
“If the private backers are pulling out then this is clearly not a good idea. I don’t understand why the council cannot see that.
“This city cannot afford to invest that kind of money in a gamble.
“The i360 will bleed money from Brighton and Hove Council for decades. It is a stupid idea.”
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