Brighton is also a Sussex town of shingle, sea and slot machines, of ice-creams, antiques and drugs, of dog walking and ozone-hungry commuters bound daily for London. It is famous for bike and scooter meets, its resident thespians and for the London to Brighton veteran car rally. It is crammed with architectural gems of the Regency period and, although raped by shockingly bad buildings of the past 25 years, remains one of the most impressive of English seaside towns.
The subtle layering of sea, fishermen's boats, beach, sunbathers, esplanade and Regency terraces that stretches along the coast from the Palace Pier to the brash new Brighton Marina is one of the most delicious moments in English town planning.
But, perhaps not for long. Tomorrow, Brighton Council may grant permission to Victor Heal, proprietor of Peter Pan's Playground, to concrete over a stretch of much-loved beach between Palace Pier and the marina and to build a new fun-fair beside the sea. Mr Heal says he plans to spend pounds 300,000 on the new concrete- based attraction. This is the figure quoted by the Brighton Evening Argus. To show what he intends to do, Mr Heal has commissioned Michael R Turner and Associates, a firm of local architects, to produce the proposal shown here.
Is this a joke? The idea of covering this shingle beach with concrete is barbarous, and the site is possibly dangerous. One local fisherman, representing many, has written to Brighton Council explaining that the highest tides will flood the proposed fun-fair.
Two of only three firms of English engineers specialising in building on shingle beaches find the planning application ridiculous. One firm laughed when the figure of pounds 300,000 was mentioned: 'Don't waste our time; you couldn't Tarmac the beach for that.' A second explains that because shingle beaches are constantly shifting, the entire area would have to be piled to a depth of 10 metres (33 feet) with one concrete pile per metre. Because the fairground rides proposed exert tremendous downward force, the concrete surface would have to be substantially reinforced. The cost could not be less than pounds 3m. On top of that, individual rides, such as the roller-coaster shown in the architect's drawing, cost something like pounds 400,000. In all, Mr Heal's revamped playground would require an investment of between pounds 5m and pounds 6m.
Local protesters - most of them residents overlooking the sea at Kemp Town - have carried out a search of Mr Heal's companies. This reveals that Peter Pan's Playground Ltd is mortgaged to MWH Leisure Ltd, of which Mr Heal is not a director. In 1992, the last year for which accounts have been filed, the company recorded a loss of pounds 2,742. One local protester says: 'Mr Heal has since said that the new fun-fair might cost 'several times more' than the figure originally quoted in the Argus. Raising the funds needed for such an ambitious fun-fair will need all the flair Mr Heal can muster.'
Assuming the cost is unrealistically high and the site potentially dangerous, why is Brighton Council taking it seriously? Why would it even think of destroying a beach used by fishermen and by local families, naturists and daytrippers for walks, sunbathing and picnics? Why not reject the application out of hand? Beyond the PR waffle put out by the council in its Seafront Strategy Development Prospectus (a prospect of seaside heaven on earth), one need only look at buildings erected in recent years along Brighton's seafront to get a flavour of the council's aesthetic and environmental concerns. The conference centre, cinema and car-park are vile. The West Pier (once the finest in the world), long abandoned, is still rotting. Street lamps and railings are painted in hideous colours. The existing Peter Pan's Playground is low-rent stuff, an eyesore between Regency grace and the sea.
Local residents are angry for two further reasons. One is that the proposed fun-fair is in a Conservation Area. Is this what Brighton Council means by conservation? The second is that they have been given the statutory minimum time to object to the proposal. However, over the past fortnight the council has been deluged with letters of protest representing, among others, 13 residents' associations, English Heritage and Friends of the Earth. Victor Heal has tried to assuage criticism by promising to build a 'Museum of Beach Ecology' in lieu of the beach itself.
Mr Heal believes the fun-fair will be an asset to Brighton, a place, he says, 'where granny can sit and have a cup of tea and an ice- cream and listen to the music, while the rest of the family enjoy the rides'. But, because there is so little unspoilt beach left on this side of Brighton, and so many alternative amusements, the council must act as responsible guardian of a much-loved seafront that has been roughly abused and carelessly treated over the past 25 years.
To think of concreting over a beach is a churlish and silly thing to do. To destroy the delicate web of sea, shingle and Regency architecture would be an act of irresponsible folly.
Sorry, Mr Heal, life really is a beach.
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