7 May 2012…..Losing the West Pier was a Scandal. The i360 is shaping up to be another.
Are both The West Pier Trust and Brighton and Hove City Council over-obligated to Marks Barfield and caught in legal and contractual traps?
Let’s begin with loss of the West Pier. Would we be where we are had we not lost it?
In the wake of both the concert hall collapse of December 29th, 2002, and the devastating fire exactly 3 months later, many residents view the loss of Brighton’s West Pier with more than a little bitterness. The stripped skeleton just stands there, legs in the sea bed, quietly reproachful.
Over the days that followed the fire and on 28th March, 2003, The Argus unfolded the story of its immolation, as it was observed to have begun, and provided the public, officials, political and West Pier Trust reactions. See a link to one of these under ‘What the Papers Say’. Fire officers said there was no way the fire could have started on its own…. Was it soaked in petrol, things planted around it in dead of night and the fire started by remote control? How else, at the tail end of a damp English winter, would you get a fire to just flare up, take hold and destroy this vacant treasure, cut off and out to sea?
If the police were active in their hunt for arsonists, the public has never been given any details of what work they did. But in 2008, The Argus got an admission of defeat from Acting Assistant Chief Constable (at the time) Graham Cox – and you will find a link to this too under ‘What the Papers Say’. Perhaps unfairly, it has always felt like there was no real interest in finding out how the Grade 1 Listed, 103 year old Eugenius Birch designed, West Pier went up in smoke and flames. The silence echoes.
And then along came Marks Barfield with their i360 upper esplanade plan for a doughnut viewing pod on a pole some 183m above ‘ordnance survey datum’ (sea level).
In the 20th March, 2012 Argus, West Pier Trust Chairman and former BHCC Chief Executive, Glynn Jones, was quoted as saying the Trust was “contractually committed to Marks Barfield whose scheme would encourage development of a new pier”. Is this contractual commitment in some way also putting pressure on BHCC to borrow £14m to lend to Marks Barfield in order for them to profitably begin construction of their i360? Nah. There is, very likely, an extremely ugly, and much greater and legal pressure being felt by Brighton & Hove City Council.
Full Planning consent for BH2006/02369 along with Listed Consent for BH2006/02372 were agreed at Planning Committee on 11th October, 2006 (with 56 Conditions – many to be discharged before development could commence) and, following signature of the obligatory s106 Agreement, formal Planning Consent was granted on 25th October 2006. Since then a stream of excuses has flowed from Marks Barfield as they struggled to gain funding to implement planning consent.
Planning consent should have expired on 25th October 2009 because development had not commenced.
The Brighton O application for a wheel on the lower Esplanade by the West Pier was live and had been since summer 2009 in anticipation of just this eventuality. Funding to begin the i360 was conspicuously not in place. But some small bit of nonsense was done on site before the 25th of October and BHCC declared that development had commenced.
DID development really commence in October 2009?
On 10th December, 2009, at Full Council, in spite of pointing out the planning officer’s confirmation that discharge of all pre-commencement Conditions had not been achieved to even ALLOW implementation of planning consent, saveHOVE’s John Davys was told, in answer to his public question, that the BHCC legal position was that planning consent had not expired. Freedom of Information attempts were also made by him which only confirmed that the city’s legal position was that development had commenced. Requests for a copy of the official legal opinion were refused.
Is it the case that BHCC is now trapped by that legal advice provided in 2009 to both John Davys and the Brighton O developers seeking to site their viewing wheel on the lower esplanade by the West Pier? It seems very likely. There is no deadline for completion.
What we have now is known as Planning Blight. BHCC seeks to borrow £14m to lend on to Marks Barfield. Is this about starting or finishing the i360?
Brighton & Hove City Council has been prepared to clear the decks of any and all other considerations in order to wait for it. And now they want to invest in it. Just as the Labour Administration in 2007 swooned at the prospect of getting a Frank Gehry design for the city and eagerly granted planning permission for the i360 pole, so, it seems, both the Conservative and Green Administrations that followed them have been wetting themselves as though the Marks Barfield brand bestows shamanic uber asset value on this viewing pole. To them it is obvious the proposed i360 will do the same for Brighton as the Eye did for London. And it is this shallow and ‘defensive-marketing mindset’, working in tandem with whatever legal bind it may be in, that could now be about to set the city up for an uber-financial and Green Party fall.
How do the London Eye and the i360 compare?
Let’s first look at London and Brighton as host sites. Contrast, compare (and maybe feel a little humility).
Londiniium is a thousand years of history, the seat of Government, world famous and vast. Many millions of people live there. It is one of the world’s Great Cities.
Brighton is a bigged-up fishing village of some few hundred years vintage which the decadent Prince Regent used for a holiday home, giving it enough prestige at the time to attract nice, imitation London, Regency architecture along the seafront, just beyond his loopy and fabulous Royal Pavilion. Latterly, however, Brighton (population what…about 250,000?) has become the destination of choice for too many students and the hoi polloi decadents-de-jour – the drug addicts, alcoholics, hen and stag nighters. The city struggles to climb out from under their pervasive influence, to hold its head high as a tourist go-to or conference destination with any sort of gravitas. There is a desperate clutching at this i360 straw.
Now let’s compare the two Marks Barfield offerings for each of London and Brighton….
The London Eye is 135 metres high and its website claims it is the 4th highest structure in London. Within the vastness of London it cannot dominate. The wheel takes 30 minutes to go around and offers tea parties in its pods. It moves so slowly that each pod can empty as it goes around, without stopping. It costs anything from £17 upward for a single adult to buy 30 minutes on it.
The proposed i360 for Brighton would be 172-5 metres in height above the Esplanade, some 40 metres higher than the London Eye and because Brighton & Hove is a dot compared to London’s vastness, the i360 would utterly dominate the meagre extent of our own tiny ‘city’. The gentle view of the much lower London Eye, within the vast container expanse of London, is charming. To scale. The i360 pole juxtaposed with our historic seafront would be loudly charmless – a sort of bonkers outsize flagpole with a ring around it forced into the skyscape – inescapable for miles around.
The London Eye overlooks the Thames from the Embankment. The i360 overlooks the English Channel from the Esplanade; but, on its other side are the historic Regency Square (Grades 2 and 2* mostly) along with the Metropole and (Grade 2) Grand Hotels, whose grandeur and prestige would be diminished by views of the bloated i360 pod going up and down its fat, 4 metres-wide, pole outside their windows. Brighton and Hove City Council cares not.
Did BHCC hand Marks Barfield a binding contract with themselves the day they declared development had legally commenced back in October 2009?
Is this why BHCC now considers borrowing £14m to lend to Marks Barfield so they really CAN commence? The banks won’t give it to them directly and one wonders why they applied for planning permission before getting their finance securely in place. The global financial collapse did not emerge until 18 months later. Without the £3m grant organised by BHCC for them and this proposed £14m Marks Barfield only have some 50% funding. Why, during boom time, was Marks Barfield not able to convince investors of the viable and profitable worth of their project? What kind of a hole is it now digging for Brighton and Hove City Council and its taxpayers?
Has Marks Barfield now got BHCC by the short and curlies? What’s going on?
The decision to ‘consider’ (all their talk suggests they have done all the considering they intend to bother with) borrowing £14 to lend on to this developer will be taken at the 4pm Cabinet meeting at Hove Town Hall on Thursday, 10th May.
If you have concerns and think any borrowing to be done needs to go elsewhere or can provide further information to prevent the i360 becoming a Green folly, please email Geoffrey.Bowden@brighton-hove.gov.uk ASAP.