The West Pier - Background: Restoring the West Pier

History

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The West Pier still conjures images of the roaring Twenties

The West Pier is a derelict masterpiece of late 19th Century design.

Built in 1866 by Eugenius Birch, designer of a dozen other seaside piers in the country, it was transformed over the next 50 years from a promenade pier into a pleasure pier.

The large pavilion, later converted into a theatre, was opened in 1883 and the famous concert hall added in 1916.

In its Twenties heyday it attracted over two million visitors a year to its ornate ballroom and echoed with the laughter and cheers of capacity theatre audiences. Its concert hall was even home to a full-time orchestra.

Grade I listed because of its historical and architectural importance, for many the West Pier has a unique charm and today stands as a magnificent monument to a bygone age.

One of the most famous landmarks on the Sussex coast, it has also provided the backdrop for some of the most memorable films and television series ever made.

In 1969 Richard Attenborough, who made his name in the Forties gangster classic Brighton Rock, returned to Brighton to use the West Pier as the setting for his directorial debut and award-winning film Oh! What A Lovely War.

Fading glory
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The pier's popularity started to fade in the Thirties

Between the wars, visitor numbers dropped as the pleasure pier enterprise waned and during the Second World War the pier was left to the elements.

In the post-war years its concert hall became a café and the theatre was converted into the Ocean restaurant and a games pavilion downstairs. Other areas of the pier were converted into a funfair to compete with its cousin, the Palace Pier, a mile along the seafront.

By the Sixties, concerns were raised about the safety of the structure amid accusations of neglect by its owners.

Fading popularity and financial problems led to the pier being sold in 1965 for a notional fee to a company that did not have the resources to carry out essential repair works to the ageing iron and steel girders.

Five years later, the main pierhead was closed to the public because it was considered too dangerous.

Serious interest in bringing the old lady of the sea back to life failed to materialise and there were advanced plans to demolish it - seen as the cheaper option.

Only an 11th hour campaign led by ardent supporters such as Lord Attenborough and Spike Milligan - who toured Sussex with a one-man show to raise money for the fighting fund - rescued the West Pier from destruction.

Troubled waters

For many, the Grade I listed West Pier sums up Brighton perfectly with its elegant past, recent history of disrepair and hope for a brighter future.

When it became economically unviable in the Seventies, no one with the required financial clout was prepared to take responsibility for its future and since 1975 it has been derelict.

Owned by the West Pier Trust for the past 20 years, conservationists have fought a losing battle against the elements.

Following the Great Storm of 1987, the pier was virtually split in two and only a temporary walkway now connects the pierhead to the shore end. Only emergency repairs have prevented it crumbling into the sea.

Today, it is home only to hundreds of starlings who provide a spectacular sunset dance - which for many has become the West Pier's most endearing image.

Lottery award

Most people cheered when the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £14 million towards restoring the pier in 1998.

But little has been done since because this money will not be released until restoration plans have been approved. Time is fast running out for the historic landmark.

Its owners spent £1 million on demolishing the most exposed elements of the pier in order to stabilise the remainder of the structure in 1997. But these emergency works were only designed as a short term measure.

In November 2001, public tours of the historic pier, which had begun four years earlier to help raise cash for repair work, had to be halted amid fears the pier could collapse.

Meanwhile, amid seemingly endless disputes over restoration plans and failed financial deals, the lottery money has remained on hold.

To add to the uncertainty, the lottery award itself has been threatened by a legal challenge from the Noble Organisation - owner of Brighton's other Victorian seaside monument, the Palace Pier.

Their objections were rejected in April 2002 and an award of £1.6m from the Heritage Lottery Fund was released for emergency works to save the concert hall.

The organisation, however, has said it plans to continue its challenge to the rest of the lottery award.

The lottery cash represents only half of what it will eventually cost to bring back the pier to its Twenties glory. The rest has to be raised by private enterprise - a big commercial gamble.

Fighting chance

In the intervening years since the lottery funding was announced, numerous schemes have been proposed - the most famous of which came from the Eugenius consortium headed by Hove's former world boxing champion Chris Eubank.

Eubank, who fell in love with the pier while on his daily training runs in the Nineties, hoped to make it "every bit as classy as when it was built".

But his dreams were scuppered in June 2000 after the collapse of Eugenius' main financial backers.

Vital repair work carried out to shore up the aged structure in 1998 had a limited liefspan and there is now a desperate race against time to begin the major structural works necessary to save the pier.

Dream or reality?

2002 is widely regarded as the most crucial year in the pier's 136-year history.

While planning permission has been granted for the multi-million pound restoration of the pier itself, this work will remain on hold until city planners approve the latest developer's plans for two large buildings on either side of the pier.

Developer St Modwen says the seafront 'pavilions' are needed to make the project viable - extra commercial space is needed to raise the money required for maintenance of the pier in the long term.

Conservationists, however, say these buildings - which will rise high above the promenade - would be another large development the city does not need, would spoil the appearance of the seafront and permanently block out existing sea views.

St Modwen says the shoreline buildings would contain restaurants, bars, shops and other leisure attractions in keeping with recent developments along the city's seafront.

But similar ideas have accompanied previous failed schemes, and it is anyone's guess whether the 12 men and women on the council's planning committee will give the green light to the plans.

If they are passed, the West Pier could be completely restored in two years' time.

But if rejected, the chances are it will be consigned to a watery grave - prompting the question: Who will foot the estimated £2 million plus to clear up the mess?

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