The business case that helped convince politicians to approve a £36 million taxpayer-backed loan to build the i360 has been accidentally handed to The Argus by hapless council officials.

After nearly a decade, this paper can finally reveal the overestimated projections that were instrumental in swaying councillors to approve the public debt needed to fund the construction of the now financially-perilous i360.

In 2013 the business case from D&J International Consulting told politicians the seafront attraction would generate millions of pounds in revenue. As a result, the business case claimed, it would easily pay back the multi-million-pound loan guaranteed by the city taxpayer. 

But these financial figures were overestimated and after years of missed payments, the 530-foot seafront attraction now owes about £47 million – a bill of at least £133 for every person in Brighton and Hove.

In fact, the Brighton i360's revenues could be roughly half of what politicians were told they would be before they granted the taxpayer-backed loan, the business case today reveals. 

These inaccurate projections have been kept hidden at the taxpayers’ expense ever since. Instead, they have been discussed behind closed council meeting doors and redacted in subsequent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

The Argus: The overestimated figures have been kept secret by Brighton and Hove City Council for nearly ten yearsThe overestimated figures have been kept secret by Brighton and Hove City Council for nearly ten years (Image: D&J Consulting)

When this secrecy was challenged by former Argus reporter John Keenan in 2016, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which mediates FoI request disputes, agreed that the details should be released.

But the council then splashed £36,000 of taxpayer cash to fight the information watchdog in the High Court where it won the right to redact key financials before disclosing the document to the public.

However today, after nearly a decade, The Argus can finally reveal these financial details after hapless council officials botched the redactions when responding to a new FoI request submitted by this paper.

Just as in 2016, the council claimed the release of the un-redacted business case would prejudice the commercial interests of the i360 and the council. 

But instead of deleting those key financials, officials simply put a black background on the text, superficially masking the information before sending the document. 

As a result, the data was simply extracted using copy-and-paste from the document, and so can now finally be disclosed to the public for the first time.

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After hearing of the news, former Argus reporter Mr Keenan said: “If they had given me the financials when I had asked, they would have saved Brighton residents thousands and council officers lots of time. 

“It has always been my opinion that the i360 was paid for by Brighton residents and so they deserve to know what the business case was."

The Argus: The i360 when it officially became the tallest building in Sussex after pushing past the 120m mark in 2015 (Picture Terry Aplin)The i360 when it officially became the tallest building in Sussex after pushing past the 120m mark in 2015 (Picture Terry Aplin) (Image: Terry Aplin)

Brighton and Hove City Council dubbed the blunder "human error" and said it will be addressing this issue so future FoI requests are properly redacted.

The council now claims however that the information is "no longer commercially sensitive" – just a month after refusing the request on commercial grounds.

A council spokesman said: "In the specific case of the i360, the passing of time since the tribunal’s decision – combined with the effects of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic – mean that our visitor economy has changed considerably.

“Having reviewed this issue we recognise that this information is no longer commercially sensitive. We will therefore be reissuing the requested information unredacted."

When submitting the request, The Argus asked the council to "consider the change in circumstances over the last five years since the [high court] decision was made".

Under regulations, the council should have reviewed the factors for and against disclosure when responding to our request.

As a result, this paper has complained about the council's handling of the request to the ICO, alleging this was not done. 

The Argus: An artist's impression of the i360 attraction before it was builtAn artist's impression of the i360 attraction before it was built (Image: Newsquest)

Responding to the allegation, the council spokesman added: “The original response was sent in good faith in the belief that the tribunal decision still applied. We do review FOI responses when issues are raised as a matter of course. 

“Having reviewed the position, and having taken legal and financial advice, it was concluded that the information was no longer commercially sensitive because of the passage of time and change of circumstances.  

“We are sorry that this was not picked up at the initial stage.”

The projections in full

The Brighton i360's revenues could be roughly half of what politicians were told they would be before they granted the taxpayer-backed loan, the business case today suggests. 

"Uninflated" projections estimated the attraction would receive £11 million in total revenue in 2018. Its inflated projections claimed this figure would be £12.2 million. 

However, according to public documents, the i360's gross revenue in the 2018/2019 financial year was £6.3 million. In the year to June 30, 2021, this fell to £2.9 million.

As previously reported, visitor numbers are dramatically below what was estimated. 

Only in its first year did the number of visitors go above the amount needed to pay back the loan - 503,000. But only 344,000 people visited the year afterwards, which is a far cry from the 801,000 people projected in the business case.

Lower than predicted visitor numbers have undoubtedly had an effect on revenue streams that rely on attendance figures – such as admissions, merchandise, and sales.

Politicians were told that in 2022, the attraction would be making £6.1 million a year in admissions, £1.2 million in visitor merchandise, and £357,000 in guidebook sales. The actual figures for these revenue streams are not publicly available. 

What is known, however, is that the i360 has not yet replaced its lead sponsor, British Airways, after its departure. According to the business case, sponsorship should have been worth a total of £425,000 to the attraction in 2022. 

A Brighton and Hove City Council spokesman said it needs to consider when information is commercially sensitive.

He said: “The version of the original i360 business case we sent out in response to a recent FoI query was consistent with the decision of a tribunal held to consider what should be placed in the public domain.  

“We have a responsibility to the i360 and to all the other commercial organisations we work with not to publicly share information that is commercially sensitive to them.

“However, human error meant that the information was not properly redacted. We will be addressing this issue to ensure it does not recur, for the reasons set out above."

The spokesman added: “Our focus in recent years has been on the performance of the i360 going forwards, and on restructuring the loan. 

“Arrangements for the loan restructure are now in place. The i360 has recently made a payment of £700,000 that is consistent with the terms of the loan restructure. 

“We have received the assurances we sought from the i360 regarding its future operations and their ability to make the required loan repayments in future.”

The Brighton i360 declined to commnent.