Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 18:11 UK

Is this the end of the piers show?

By Caroline Hocking
BBC Radio 5 live's Drive

The pier at Hastings tops the National Piers Society's "at risk" list

The National Piers Society says that 10 of the 55 piers left remaining in Britain are in danger of collapse or demolition.

Are these structures much-loved symbols or irrelevant relics of the British seaside? And what does the future hold?

"Tourists and visitors are always really surprised that for a town that seems to be on the up, nothing's happened about the pier," says Catherine Parr, who owns the White Rock Hotel in Hastings.

Her hotel sits on the Hastings seafront, opposite the pier which tops the National Piers Society's "at risk" list, which ranks the piers according to their heritage value.

She adds: "It just remains closed and rather sad and unloved, really."

Anthony Wills, who is a spokesman for the society, says that the future of piers is mixed: "It depends on whether they can rebrand themselves and on what kind of state they've got into, and whether, most importantly, the owners - be they local authority or private owners - are investing all the time and maintaining the structure, rather than just looking at the money-making aspects above the decking."

Map: Endangered piers
1. Hastings, East Sussex
2. Weston-super-Mare Birnbeck, Somerset
3. Ramsey Queen's, Isle of Man
4. Brighton West, East Sussex
5. Colwyn Bay, Conwy, North Wales
6. Lowestoft Claremont, Suffolk
7. Totland Bay, Isle of Wight
8. Mumbles, Swansea
9. Herne Bay, Kent
10. Felixstowe, Suffolk
Source: National Piers Society

There were 101 piers all built between 1814 and 1957, but now just over half are left - and 10 of those are now closed to the public.

The structures have always been susceptible to bad weather and stormy seas.

Fires have also caused problems - Weston-super-Mare's 104-year-old grand pier in Somerset was wrecked by fire in July 2008 and, six weeks later, Fleetwood Pier in Lancashire also burnt down.

Add to that the pressures of the economy and the lure of holidays abroad on cheap flights, and it is not hard to see why pier owners have a fight on their hands.

Huge expense

Another important factor is ensuring that the pier can provide a livelihood for somebody and make cold, hard cash.

"They are enormously expensive structures to maintain," says Colin Dawson, the chief executive of The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA).

"Unfortunately, the days of people paying purely to promenade are, I'm afraid, long past."

He believes the people who own Britain's piers need more help to make the structures pay and says: "One of the issues is that currently a privately-owned pier can obtain no assistance to maintain the structure of the pier, which of course is critical to its well-being.


"I think it's a decision for government to take that if they're serious about wanting to preserve our seaside heritage, then they have to come forward with some way of assisting, particularly privately-owned piers."

He says one of the ways would be to allow access to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is currently available to other forms of attractions, but not those that are privately owned.

Retractable roof

There are signs of hope.

A rebuilding project started in Weston-super-Mare straight after last year's fire and businesses in the area say visitor numbers are up this summer despite the closure.

A new pavilion for the pier is due to open in 2010 and will feature an 85m (279ft) tower at the sea end.

It will also include a covered retractable electric glazed roof to keep people dry on rainy days and a "thrill ride" on the roof.

"Times have moved on so far that there is no way they (piers) could exist purely as they were in Victorian times."
Colin Dawson, chief executive of BALPPA

Stuart Barrow, an expert on the seaside, says piers need to play to the strengths of the local area and reflect the market of the area they are in.

"All destinations have to have their own unique selling point," says Mr Barrow.

"As long as you go with the grain and fit in with that, you'll have a successful pier."

Mr Dawson agrees that piers need to adapt to the 21st Century, saying: "There is no future for British piers if they are just left to rot or to try to be maintained in the way that they were originally intended.

"Times have moved on so far that there is no way they could exist purely as they were in Victorian times."

Seaside expert Allan Brodie points to the example of Birnbeck Pier, in Weston-super-Mare - where he says developers Urban Splash have been "leading the way" to fashion the pier of the future.

"The idea of the pier is not a fixed thing", he says, "and it has changed over the last 200 years - the pier began as somewhere where you just tied up a boat."

In Hastings, Catherine Parr of The White Rock Hotel is hoping that change will come to her seafront.

At the moment, she says, Hastings is like "Oxford Street without the Selfridges".

"I mean, obviously, (the pier) needs work on it, it needs to be reinvented over the 21st Century."

"Those things could happen, things can change.

"None of the buildings on the pier are original - it evolved over the years. So why not carry on evolving and build it into something the people of Hastings can be really proud of?"

Find out more about BBC Radio 5 live Drive or read the blog at the programme website.

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