PEOPLE living in Brighton and Hove face a bill of at least £133 each if the i360 is unable to make its repayments to the city.

Should the 530-foot structure continue to fail in meeting its visitor targets, local taxpayers would ultimately be liable for a loan used to build the seafront attraction, now totalling nearly £40 million.

Only in its first year, the so-called champagne year, did enough people visit the i360 for it to be able to pay back the money.

Visitor numbers have fallen every year since and the coronavirus pandemic has ensured that 2020 has been the attraction’s worst year to date.

Now, The Argus looks at why the loan was granted in the first place, what contribution the i360 has made to the city since opening in 2016 and what is being done to ensure residents do not end up footing the bill.

Why was the loan granted?

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THE i360, a tourist attraction which towers over Brighton’s skyline, was proposed by the same people who designed the London Eye.

Former council leader Mary Mears voted against loaning the attraction money in 2014.

She said: “I think this was because they had done the London Eye and it was new and exciting.

“But the bottom line is how many people you would need to attract to make it viable and this was the problem for me.”

The i360 was first proposed by husband and wife team David Marks and Julia Barfield, of Marks Barfield, who were behind the design of the giant observation wheel on the side of the River Thames.

“The i360’s team came to see me as the leader of the council and presented their proposal,” cllr Mears said.

“My biggest concern at the time was that they were looking for public funding for a private development.

“We are not a bank. We don’t have our own money, we have taxpayer money.”

In 2014, councillors were asked to decide on whether to loan £36.2 million to build the £46.2 million project.

A consultancy firm called D&J Consultation was drafted in to produce a business case.

The report estimated about 347,000 people would need to come to the attraction each year in order for the loan to be paid back.

If visitor numbers fall below this point, the i360 would not be able to repay the loan which residents are ultimately liable for.


The estimates were well above this required amount.

The business case estimated that 823,000 visitors would come in the first year, 802,000 in the second, 780,000 in the third and 690,000 in the year after.

The Green-led council, spearheaded by their leader Jason Kitcat, were backed by the Conservatives to grant the loan.

When the attraction opened in 2016, the business case estimations turned out to be inaccurate.

Projected visitor numbers compared with actual visitor numbers 

Only in its first year did the number of visitors total over the amount needed to pay back the loan - 503,000.

In the year after, 344,000 people visited.

The number fell again last year to 324,000.

This year, the visitor numbers have fallen once more – by 33 per cent – as the attraction battles coronavirus measures including lockdown and social distancing.

“I’m on the side of the i360, I want them to succeed and bring millions of people into Brighton and Hove,” said John Kapp, a man who wants to turn the attraction into the world’s biggest sundial.

The Argus:

John Kapp with a model sundial outside the i360

The 85-year-old’s vision would see more than 15,000 bricks installed around the i360 to turn it into a sundial chart visible from the top of the ride.

He said: “I’m a nutter for sundials and telling the time by the old-fashioned way of the sun. “I thought this could be a really good way of getting more people into the city and using the i360 - it would certainly increase interest.”

The i360 described the idea as “food for thought”.

But the thrust behind his idea is important as visitor numbers are, and always have been, central to the attraction’s success.

The council borrowed the £36.2 million from the Public Works Loan Board and lent it to the i360.

The i360 acknowledges there is a “marked difference between the original business plan and actual visitor numbers”.

The attraction says this is due to the presumption there would be three pods going up in one hour, which was later changed to two.

The question now is whether it can ever get enough visitors to the attraction needed to pay back the loan, which is gaining interest every year.

Moreover, its five-year sponsorship deal with British Airways is due to run out next year, which means even more visitors could be needed to fill in the revenue gap.

A spokeswoman for the attraction said its sponsor BA is facing “unprecedented challenges” within its own business so those “are their priorities right now”.

If the i360 were to fail, it would be costly for the city. The loan’s current total including interest is £38.9 million.

Based on population estimates, that is a bill of £133 for everybody estimated to live in Brighton and Hove – including children and pensioners.

What has the attraction contributed to the city?

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THE Argus asked its readers to share what they thought about the attraction. More than 150 people responded.

The design has proved polarising with opinions ranging from “absolute eyesore” to “distinctive landmark”

Some believe the attraction has “helped bring in investment to that side of the seafront” whereas others have described it as “a waste of money”.

Traders in the vicinity of the attraction, however, have sung its praises in bringing tourists further along the seafront.

Grace Walford, 21, works at the Upside Down House attraction next to the i360.

She said: “It’s bringing a lot of tourism to the area, a lot of customers go on the i360 and then go to the upside-down house and the playground.

“It’s becoming almost like a second hub along the seafront - it’s very popular.

“People come here to go on the i360 and then visit other places in the area, it’s a full day out to do a lot of stuff along the coast.”

The Argus:

Grace Walford outside the Upside Down House on Brighton seafront 

Additionally, the i360 has helped fund landscaping works in the area, benefitting traders and residents alike.

As well as this, the entire seafront will see more investment over time as one per cent of all ticket sales are paid into a pot for environmental improvements. Some of the work this pot will pay, such as refurbishing the seafront arches, has not been rolled out yet.

“We are waiting to build up a larger fund to spend in one go,” a spokeswoman for the council said.

One historical project set to see a windfall is the decaying Madeira Terrace arches, which can be found east of Brighton Palace Pier.

The project to save the cast iron promenading structure has been promised £1 million.

Jax Atkins, from the Save Madeira Terraces Campaign, said: “It’s great to get the initial million, it is brilliant.

“We are expecting more, I’m expecting it to be a regular thing where the new would help fund the old.

"It would be great for the i360 to survive in order to meet its payments not only to the council, but also the number of projects across the city which are relying on the funds.”

The Argus:

'The new funding the old' – Jax Atkins outside the Madeira Terrace Arches

A 2019 report commissioned by the i360 attempted to estimate the impact the attraction has had on the local economy. 

The report claimed the structure had already contributed £89.6 million and, providing the i360 manages to pay its loan back to the council, it will have contributed a total of £640 million. 

This represents a return of £15.90 for every £1.00 of public sector investment. 

What is happening with the i360 now?

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SO how are the council and the i360 ensuring its debts are paid? 

In total, two years of payments have now been deferred so far in a bid to give the attraction some breathing room. 

However, the Conservative opposition on the council believe this is putting residents at risk and are calling for a directors’ guarantee to be put on the loan. 

This would make the directors of the company personally responsible for paying off any outstanding debt.

Leader of the Conservative group, Steve Bell, said: “The missed payments puts the taxpayers of Brighton and Hove in a perilous position, potentially liable for a sum equivalent to 5 per cent of its annual budget.

“If the i360 board, as it has stated, is that confident in the success of the i360 and in the success of their business plan, I would recommend that we ask them to put down a directors’ guarantee to ensure and protect the citizens of the city.”

The Argus:

Conservative leader Steve Bell is calling for a directors' guarantee

The spokeswoman for the i360 was asked whether the directors would be open to the suggestion. 

She responded: “The directors have already personally invested just over £10 million into Brighton i360 and therefore are already fully committed to the business and its success. 

“They have taken no money out of the business, nor do they plan to until the other financial commitments are settled.”

In December last year, the council agreed to a loan restructure on a number of conditions. 

These included an agreed business plan which will be reviewed every year.

A “cash sweep” whereby the i360 retains enough cash to continue to operate, but any money left over is given to the council to pay the debt.

The directors were also given a “commercial incentive to perform” by allowing them to keep 40 per cent of the net operating income.

A council spokeswoman said: “We take the loan of public money very seriously and are taking all steps to ensure it is paid back.

“We are working to ensure the money gets repaid over the full lifetime of the loan, and we recognise the beneficial impact on the city’s economy that the i360 has had.”

The i360 is adamant that it will be able to pay back its obligations to the residents of Brighton and Hove. 

A spokeswoman for the attraction said: “Since the new leadership of the i360 took over in January 2019, visitor numbers have increased consistently and revenue has grown, with the exception of the three autumn months of 2019 due to an unseasonably wet and windy period. 

“Naturally the Covid-19 situation has been a setback to that growth trajectory as it has to all hospitality businesses nationwide. 

“However, once we can return to a normal operating situation, we are confident that growth in visitor numbers and profits will continue.

“The business has always operated at a profit, and since opening it has paid £5.1 million in capital and interest payments to the Council. 

“As the attraction builds visitor numbers then profit will grow and loan repayments will be easier. 

“Although it’s been disappointing to not be able to make full repayment at present, there should be a high degree of confidence in the ability for Brighton i360 to pay in full over the full term of the loan.”