The West Pier - Opinion

Isn't it time to build on heritage of West Pier?

by Adam Trimingham

April 27, 2005

The Argus: Static HTML image
The pier now sits stranded from the shore

Look along the lower esplanade in Brighton these days and you will see one of the liveliest and most beautiful seafronts in Britain.

But there is one big blot on the pretty picture and that is the derelict West Pier. Two collapses and two arson attacks have transformed what was a romantic ruin into a pile of twisted metal.

In the past ten years there have been high hopes that this building, probably the most delightful seaside pier ever created, could be restored to its Twenties splendour.

These hopes were dashed by a cruel combination of ill fortune, official obfuscation and criminal damage.

Now the Brighton West Pier Trust, which owns the structure, is looking at the way ahead for the first ever pier to become a Grade I listed building.

The withdrawal of financial support last year by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) effectively ended plans for a complete renovation.

There is no way in which a developer could have restored a pier in appalling condition without a great deal of public subsidy.

It was a shock. It was a surprise. It was a betrayal of the people of Brighton and Hove by a quango that should have been braver.

Withdrawal by the HLF made many people wonder whether this was at last the end of the pier show. But the trust has instead chosen to regard it as an opportunity for looking at the pier in a new light.

It now has freedom to go ahead with a project on the site which is not entirely dominated by the past and it has the flexibility to look at new ideas.

One idea is to restore the main entrance to the pier at the shore end with a heritage centre in the neighbourhood.

It would be possible to rebuild the delightful concert hall in the centre of the pier and to renovate other sections using material which has been kept carefully in store.

But the rest of the pier could be a modern structure designed by a top architect to reflect the skills of this century rather than the Victorian age.

Trust chief executive Dr Geoff Lockwood says: “It would be reusing in a modern etting the jewels from a orn out Victorian ring.”

Part of me wonders whether a modern pier head, fused on to the magnificent structure designed by Eugenius Birch, might look incongruous.

But the pier most of us grew to love was not all built at the same time. It was started in 1866 as a rather bare structure with a few kiosks. The theatre was not built until the 1890s and the concert hall was completed in 1916.

There are many other buildings, including historic churches and the Tower of London, which were built over a long period and as a result are a fusion of styles.

There has already been considerable interest in building a new pier in Brighton and several designs have been exciting.

If the project were to be agreed by the trust, the city council and English Heritage, many eminent architects and designers might be interested in the project.

Using modern materials, it would be possible to prepare a pier which required less maintenance than a traditional building and would be more likely to pay its way.

Such a structure would not need the kind of contribution that eventually led the HLF to withdraw its commitment, although some cash would be sought for the restoration element.

That might temper objections from the Palace Pier, which argued a revived West Pier with huge amounts of public or Lottery money amounted to unfair competition.

The new West Pier would also not need shoreline buildings on the scale of those proposed when planning permission was given for the original restoration.

That could lead to support from local people who were against the previous scheme because they thought the commercial pavilions on each side were ugly and unnecessary.

It might even result in support from conservation societies, which also opposed the original scheme, although some of them might not like the modern element.

Those who have doubts about this latest thinking on the pier should ponder the alternative: To leave the pier rotting and rusting into the Channel until a point came for it to be removed.

Who would pay for that to be done? Not the cashstrapped council which does not own the building. Not the trust which does not have either the money or the inclination.

Not English Heritage which exists to preserve buildings rather than destroy them.

The cost of demolition could be a couple of million pounds and the pier would not lightly let go of life. More than 20 years ago, there was no end of trouble in blowing up another of Birch’s piers at Margate – and he was only a beginner when he built that one.

I am extremely sad that the admirable aim of restoring the West Pier has had to be abandoned after all these years.

Those who did everything possible to obstruct it, ranging from the shadowy arsonists to the commercial opponents, should feel ashamed of themselves.

One of the loveliest historic buildings in Britain, and one which could have been restored, is now a sad wreck thanks to their efforts.

But there is still time for a new pier to be produced which would be unique. Brighton could lead the world in marine architecture now as it has in the past.

The new West Pier would be a tribute first of all to Eugenius Birch, the greatest pier builder there ever was. It would also be a tribute to the many people who have strived to keep the pier dream alive, often against amazing odds.

These range all the way from John Lloyd, the donnish, determined founder of the trust who prevented demolition in the Seventies, to John Smith, the Tory councillor who chaired the trust at a grim time.

I would include among their number Admiral Sir Lindsay Bryson, who died last month.

He helped to put the trust on a business-like footing a decade ago when Lottery funds seemed likely and remained at the helm even when seriously ill.

Thirty years ago, the West Pier closed to the public for safety reasons after giving immense pleasure to millions of people for more than a century.

The story of how it came to be built covers a triumph of technology and a determination to provide an elegant pier people flocked to see so they could walk over water.

There is every reason to support far-sighted efforts being made today to ensure the new West Pier combines the best of the old with exciting new architecture and attractions.

Once it has been completed, the pier will be a soaring and spectacular part of the seafront instead of the sorry pile of scrap iron it is today.

Why the old lady is still the best

by Adam Trimingham

February 4, 2004

We want the West Pier! That was the slogan of Brighton residents who aimed to save the grand old lady of the sea from a watery grave 30 years ago when it was in danger of partial demolition.

They collected 30,000 signatures and persuaded Brighton Council to change its mind.

But last year fire-raisers and storms achieved what councillors would not allow in 1974.

All the time the pier was a romantic ruin there was a hope it could be saved and restored to its most glorious days 80 years ago when two million people passed through the turnstiles.

But the arsonists succeeded in making the pier look a sad wreck and from that time support started ebbing away from plans to conserve it.

The Brighton West Pier Trust, successor to the We Want The West Pier Society, was not helped by having to go along with a large shoreline development by private sector partner St Modwen.

This was deeply unpopular with conservationists who could normally be relied on to support saving the second-best building in Brighton.

Just one week ago, the Heritage Lottery Fund hammered what seemed to be the final nails in the coffin by withdrawing the millions which had been pledged for the pier's restoration.

So who was responsible for the decline and partial fall of the pier?

I blame:

  1. Former pier owner Harold Poster, who let it fall into such an appalling condition it was partially closed in 1970 and completely closed five years later.
  2. Brighton Council for not accepting the belated but generous offer of Mr Poster to sell the pier for £1 and put £250,000 towards the restoration which would then have covered most if not all of the cost.
  3. The Heritage Lottery Fund, for changing its mind over money for the pier and mucking around with the trust, which has stalled restoration schemes in their tracks.
  4. English Heritage for not sanctioning a really bold and imaginative piece of architecture as the shoreline development for the pier. This led to the controversial proposals by St Modwen which had to be designed so they were subordinate to the pier.
  5. The Palace Pier for putting every obstacle in the way of the trust once a democratic decision had been reached a year ago to grant planning permission
  6. The arsonists for twice wrecking the pier and giving the green light to anyone else with an unwanted but listed historic building to torch it and see what happens next.

The fight goes on

The Argus: Static HTML image
New model: Aros' futuristic vision for a modern West Pier © Aros

I have been cycling past that pier almost every day since the Sixties and always gained great pleasure from its appearance until the events of 2003.

It's half a lifetime ago but I recall walking on the pier in its dog days and even then being impressed by its fading grandeur.

Last Wednesday as I went by the West Pier, it was like saying farewell to an old friend with all hope of restoration gone.

But a week later there is a different story. The trust is still trying to rescue the St Modwen scheme by persuading the Heritage Lottery Fund to think again.

Various other bidders have put their names forward for a rescue deal, including the consortium headed by former boxing champion Chris Eubank.

They also include Aros, whose plans for a futuristic pier attracted a lot of interest when revealed last year in The Argus.

Most intriguing of all was the proposal by English Heritage for restoring the pier, not to its Twenties splendour but to how it was in 1866.

This came as a complete surprise to me and most people much more intimately concerned with the pier although not, I suspect, to others.

The advantages are immediate and obvious. A more simple pier with a promenade and a few kiosks would be easier and cheaper to build and maintain.

Such a structure would not pose any commercial threat to the fortunes of the Palace Pier owners who could cease their opposition.

It would also meet the concerns of conservationists because there would be no large shoreline development to accompany it.

The restored West Pier would be a tribute to the original designer, Eugenius Birch, since it would be his pier people saw and not one subject to additions for the following 50 years.

Such a pier would be more of a rebuild than a restoration because several of the kiosks are intact and most of the original piles for the pier still stand.

The Heritage Lottery Fund might be persuaded to renew its original large offer of £14 million towards the West Pier.

English Heritage would be prepared to fund the rest and run the revived promenade pier as an ancient monument.

But there are many questions which need to be answered before such a project can be sanctioned.

Is the 1866 pier really what people want? To many visitors, the pier was symbolised by the imposing theatre at the end, built in 1893, and the elegant concert hall finished in 1916.

Will English Heritage be able to afford the lesser but still substantial (perhaps £25 million compared to £40 million) costs involved? If there is to be a charge for going on the West Pier, who will pay to stroll on a bare promenade when they can enjoy all the attractions on the Palace Pier for free?

Will members of the West Pier Trust, which owns the pier, be prepared to go along with this new scheme when they have invested so much time and trouble in a partly commercial solution?

What will be proposed to fill the large, empty spaces where the shoreline development would be and will that be commercial too?

No quick fix

There will be some in Brighton who will say they have had enough of the West Pier and the structure should be demolished as soon as possible.

The Argus: Static HTML image
Supporters have been fighting to save the pier since the Seventies

But they should be warned there is no way this could be achieved with any speed.

Firstly the pier would have to be delisted, not a likely solution when it is a Grade I listed building strongly supported by the Government's conservation watchdog, English Heritage.

Then there is the question of who would pay for the demolition, which would cost at least £2 million.

Not cash-strapped Brighton and Hove City Council and not the West Pier Trust which is a small organisation.

If eventual ownership of the pier reverted to the Crown, as it did in the Seventies, demolition would only be considered if the pier declined to the extent it was considered a danger.

The practical task of demolition would be immense. There was enough trouble a few years ago getting rid of Margate Pier, also designed by Birch, when it fell into disuse and Birch was only a beginner when he built that.

Those of us who love the West Pier have a passion for it which no other pier could possibly evince.

It is purely and simply the most beautiful pleasure pier ever built or ever likely to be built should a new wave of modern piers be considered.

Of the 50-odd surviving piers along the British coastline, just the Palace Pier, Blackpool North Pier and Clevedon Pier (the only other Grade I listed) have any serious claims to be a rival.

The West Pier had a haughty air the more plebeian never possessed.

It was in a posh part of town. Its slogan was The West Pier Is The Best Pier and it lived up to that billing.

People loved to stroll up and down its decking to see and be seen.

The West Pier attracts admiration through its sheer survival. The fact any of it stands after all those gales and storms, including the 1987 hurricane, is a tribute to the genius of Birch.

Brighton was for years known as a resort with piers, queers and racketeers. The last two categories are still around in sundry guises but it would be a cause for genuine tears if the two piers were ever reduced to one.

Once we know what the future holds it will be time to gather public support for another We Want The West Pier campaign to show the powers-that-be how much backing there is for it.

The alternative, too sad to contemplate, is to let it slowly rot away so that in time the West Pier becomes the Disappear.

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