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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June, 2003, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Uncertain future for West Pier
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online

The ash may have settled, but uncertainty still hangs over Brighton's West Pier like a pall of smoke.

West Pier, late 1920s - picture courtesy of Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Developers St Modwen want to return the pier to its 1920s' heyday
The Victorian pier was severely damaged in March and May when fires blamed on arson tore through the structure.

The flames compounded damage caused in December, when part of the 1,100-feet-long pier collapsed into the sea.

Now its owners, the West Pier Trust, must wait to see if their plans to restore the grade-one listed building to its 1920s glory will go ahead.

The plans for the pier and a controversial accompanying development were passed in principle by Brighton and Hove City Council in February - but concern over the damage caused by the two fires has meant further delays.

On Brighton seafront: Your views on the future of the West Pier.

English Heritage - who had lent its support to the project - will release a report at the end of June re-examining its feasibility.

The restoration depends on a 14.2m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, match-funded by property developers St Modwen.

The West Pier Trust has also faced a series of legal challenges in the European courts from the Noble Organisation, owners of Brighton Pier, formerly the Palace Pier.

Rachel Clark, of the West Pier Trust, said the legal battles were making their job harder - but they were "absolutely sure" the restoration would go ahead.

"There had been a year's delay leading up to that point dealing with the first legal challenge that the Palace Pier owners made," she said.

The original West Pier
The structure opened in 1866 but closed in 1975
Master builder Eugenius Birch designed the pier
In its heyday, it welcomed more than 2m visitors a year

"That resulted in the Lottery Fund making a referral to Europe and that took a year for Europe to clear it - with the outcome that it wasn't unfair competition."

Campaign group Save Our Seafront also fought to limit the accompanying development of cafes and shops on the seafront, needed to make the pier commercially viable.

And in May, London-based architects Aros made waves when they released plans for a futuristic pier, tethered to the seabed and offering housing, a surfing beach and cable car.

The proposal has yet to find money for the project but suggested Brighton should look forward rather than backwards.

Ken Bodfish, the Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, said it was "supportive" of the West Pier Trust's plans.

Rachel Clark, of the West Pier Trust
Ms Clark says delays caused by legal challenges cost a heavy price

But the council would also consider designs for a futuristic new pier.

Mr Bodfish said: "There have always been two piers in Brighton and we want to maintain two - and why not three?

"We would facilitate as far as we can any proposals that are clearly sensible and would support the tourist potential of the city.

"I took my children on the West Pier and I would love to be able to take my grandchildren on to a renovated West Pier too."

Meanwhile, the question of who started the fires and why seems likely to remain unsolved.

An East Sussex Fire Brigade spokeswoman said firefighters were unable to investigate the site because it was too dangerous.

Designs for a new pier by architects Aros
Architects Aros made waves by mooting a futuristic pier design

She said: "Seeing what state the pier is in now it's likely any evidence has been destroyed - and obviously we are not going to put our personnel's lives in danger by sending them on to it."

A spokesman for Sussex Police said although the fires were viewed as suspicious, there was little officers could do.

He said: "It's recorded as an arson because the indications are that it probably is.

"But there is no real forensic evidence to back that up that the firefighters would normally give us.

"Like unsolved murders, if some new evidence comes up and means we can take it forward, we will."

Ms Clark added: "There is no doubt in our minds that they were arson attacks that would normally have set us back.

"The effect is the reverse - it just makes a group like us more determined and resolved to see it happen."

Pier: past, present, future?
12 Jun 03  |  Photo Gallery
Pier fires spark review of restoration
15 May 03  |  Southern Counties
Pier fire flares up again
12 May 03  |  Southern Counties
'No evidence' pier fire was arson
06 May 03  |  Southern Counties
Flare link to West Pier fire
03 Apr 03  |  England
West Pier destroyed by fire
28 Mar 03  |  England
Pier restoration plans approved
26 Feb 03  |  England


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