THE BRIGHTON Centre is a hard building to love with its stark facade on the seafront.

But it has helped Brighton remain one of Britain’s leading resorts when many others are struggling for survival.

There were conferences before the Second World War and in Brighton they could easily fit into the Dome, made more comfortable and handsome by the renovations in 1935.

It seemed particularly appropriate that the Trades Union Congress, depicted as a carthorse by the cartoonist David Low, should park itself in the former royal stables.

But the prized political conventions outgrew the Dome and conferences moved to the Sports Stadium in West Street.

For the rest of the year this was used as an ice rink, giving rise to jokes about hot air and cold feet.

The smaller resorts such as Scarborough and Margate could not hold the burgeoning conferences and by the mid-1960s only Brighton and Blackpool were big enough.

Then came the abrupt closure of the Sports Stadium, a blow only mitigated by Top Rank’s concession to allow the political conferences the use of its new King’s West centre.

But Rank found some of the original uses such as ice skating unprofitable and replaced them with cinemas which meant there was no longer any room for conferences.

Brighton Council did not waste time.

It decided to build the first new conference centre in Britain next door to the Rank monstrosity.

The council got round tight government restrictions on spending by selling assets to meet the estimated £4 million cost.

These included a farm at Falmer, the so-called Golden Acres building site for expensive homes in Varndean and some land at Portslade.

But the price spiralled and eventually reached £10 million. This meant, as The Argus reminded its readers, a cost of £10 each year for every man, woman and child in the resort.

Normally there were deep political divides over every major issue in Brighton but the only squabble over the Brighton Centre was among the ruling Tories over who should open it.

The obvious choice was Prime Minister James Callaghan who knew Brighton well and who farmed at Ringmer but diehard Tories did not want a Labour man doing the job.

In the end, Callaghan was invited and Sunny Jim was at his best that day.

Brighton paid a price for innovation as it soon became clear that many conferences required break out space for smaller meetings as well as a main hall.

The acoustics proved no good for classical music although the centre was fine for loud pop groups like Status Quo.

It also was suitable for sporting events such as basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters and women’s tennis.

And while ice may have failed next door, spectacular ice shows each January were a big success.

The building was uncompromisingly ugly but it was hard to make a big box look handsome and architect Bob Carpenter spent long hours working late at night on finishing touches. An east wing was added in 1990 to make the centre more flexible and by this time it was in its prime.

It was the venue for Denis Healey’s narrow win over Tony Benn to become deputy Labour leader. On the beach opposite, Neil Kinnock slipped into the sea while posing for pictures after being elected leader.

I was there in 1984 when Margaret Thatcher decided to carry on with the Conservative conference despite the bombing of the Grand Hotel earlier that same day. The Tories have only returned to Brighton once since then, partly because of painful memories of the bomb.

Many Tories felt insulted by two Labour mayors who instead of giving them a warm welcome, berated the party’s policies.

Although Labour has been in Brighton this week, conferences are declining along with the major parties.

For more half its life, the centre has been threatened with demolition as the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea that keeps popping up, and which will be debated this week, is building a new conference centre twice its size at Black Rock and extending Churchill Square shops to the seafront.

But hold on a second. Wasn’t the original Churchill Square meant to reach the seafront but instead became a retail cul-de-sac? Aren’t retail sales so slow that many outlets have closed in the city centre? Hasn’t Black Rock been derelict almost the whole lifetime of the Brighton Centre because it is such a poor site?

I can’t see many delegates favouring a centre more than a mile away from the Palace Pier and with only the marina for company.