Brighton's end-of-the-pier show turns nasty

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Rearing up out of the sea like a decrepit Victorian Meccano set, the charred remnants of Brighton's once-fabled West Pier were still exuding trails of smoke with sporadic bursts of flame yesterday.

Rearing up out of the sea like a decrepit Victorian Meccano set, the charred remnants of Brighton's once-fabled West Pier were still exuding trails of smoke with sporadic bursts of flame yesterday.

On Saturday night while the tide was low, somebody – either vandals or, as many believe, more sinister forces – set light to what remained of the concert hall on the pier, already damaged by winter gales.

The blaze destroyed the remaining facades until all that was left was a wreck that continued to burn yesterday, out of reach of firemen banned by health and safety officials from entering the dangerous structure. It stood next to the skeleton of the huge pavilion at the end of the pier, also destroyed by fire in March.

Just as the flames refused to die down, so did the debate over the future of the pier. A row smouldering for almost 30 years has reignited, with dark accusations being traded between those who want to return the pier to its former glory and their opponents and rivals.

"It's deliberate arson, there's no doubt it was a professional job," says Geoff Lockwood, chief executive of the West Pier Trust, as he gazes out at the smoking wreckage from his seafront portable building. "I think they came in blackened dinghies from the seaward side, and started the fire in several parts. That's not what I'd call mindless vandalism."

Publicly, he will not speculate on who might be responsible.

The fires broke out after Brighton and Hove Council granted planning permission in February for the trust's ambitious £30m redevelopment plans, in partnership with a private development company and part-funded by a £15m National Heritage Lottery Fund grant. "But it's not destroyed our commitment to restore the pier, if anything, it's strengthened it," he said. In fact, some point out that the fire actually helped the trust's plans by destroying parts that would have needed removing anyway.

The principal opponent of the redevelopment is the rival Palace Pier, a gaudy series of amusement arcades, funfair rides and candy-floss stalls whose owners have bitterly opposed the West Pier Trust plans. "We are very sorry to hear about the fire, we would not wish that upon anyone, but it doesn't alter our objections," said David Biesterfield, a director of the owners, the Brighton Marina and Pier Company, part of the Noble Group, big players in the amusement arcade industry.

The company is applying for judicial review of the planning permission, citing the use of lottery money for what it claims is essentially a commercial venture. "This project has attracted widespread emotional support because it is being presented as a sympathetic restoration of a grand old pier. It is not that at all – no more than about 10 per cent of the existing structure will be preserved, it will be raised by three feet and secured by a leisure scheme on the foreshore. Its backing by lottery money amounts to unfair competition. The scheme just hasn't been sufficiently scrutinised."

Among other opponents of its redevelopment are those who believe the renovation – which will see a raised seafront promenade – would destroy the view from the town's largely intact Regency Square.

"I don't think they can go ahead with it, there's virtually nothing of substance left, it's completely gutted," says Clive Buxton, of the Save our Seafront group and the Regency Square Society. "In almost three miles of sea front, there's only one other small obstruction to the view, apart from what they have planned. You simply cannot destroy the view both of and from these beautiful Regency and Victorian streets and terraces, they are one of the biggest assets in the town."

Although the council rejected such objections and the Government refused a public inquiry, he takes comfort from the fact that English Heritage, which gave the pier its Grade I listing after it closed – the only other such listing is Clevedon pier in Somerset – now says it is reviewing its support for the restoration following the fires. Its guidelines state that if 90 per cent of a property no longer exists, any renovation plans have to be closely questioned. If English Heritage removes support, lottery money and council backing become far from certain.

John Gavin, secretary of the society, stressed its opposition was limited to the seafront changes: "We would like to see the pier restored to its former glory, but would like to have seen some alternative plans considered. People have been in tears at the fires because it's been there all their lives.''

But he adds: "The only people who might have benefited from this are the developers because it's done a lot of their work for them."

Some feel the time has come for the end of the pier. "It's like a grand old lady out there," said Brian Coomber, a taxi driver. "I remember it in its heyday, it was wonderful, a real good place. But these rows have been going on for 30 years now and they should just end it all, put it to sleep for good, I can't see anything happening to it now, the state it's in."

For all those 30 years, the twin ornate facades of the West Pier have been ravaged by winds and waves, as seagulls perched amid peeling signs advertising ice cream and dodgem cars. But they were still largely intact, an integral part of what may be Britain's most elegant promenade and a reminder of its past glories.

But now, this week, they were finally gone forever, remembered only on the sepia-tinted photographs from its heyday after the Second World War, when it was a berth to paddle steamers such as the Brighton Belle, when stars such as Ellen Terry and Edith Evans trod the boards of its music hall or the crowds gathered on Sundays to watch "Aquatic Exhibitions" of divers and swimmers or, in its last moment of fame when Richard Attenborough filmed Oh What a Lovely War there in 1969. It closed in 1975, a victim of high maintenance costs and changing holiday practices.

But Dr Lockwood's portable building is insistent the pier will have a future as well as a past and that the scheme will go ahead on schedule with work starting in about a year's time. "This is a restoration, not a replica. We have enough material from the original buildings which have been salvaged, enough drawings and plans to make it work. It's all in storage near here.'' He adds ominously: "But after what's happened I'm not going to tell you where it is."

The West Pier

The West Pier, right, was the epitome of Victorian elegance and hailed as a supreme example of pier-building techniques

Construction began in April 1863 and took three years to complete, at a cost of £27,000.

In 1898, a pavilion was erected, which later became a theatre. The pier closed in 1975 and its owners were served with a dangerous structure notice a year later.

The West Pier Trust bought the pier for £100 in 1984. Part of the pier collapsed last year, andthere have been three suspected arson attacks this year. A £30m renovation plan was approved by Brighton and Hove council in February.

The Palace Pier

The Palace pier opened in 1899, replacing an earlier structure called the Chain Pier.

After two decades, it was extended to include a big wheel. Like the West Pier, it was cut in two during the First and Second World Wars to prevent enemy landings. German bombs damaged the structure but it reopened in 1946. In the post-war period it fared well, attracting up to 2 million visitors each year until 1960.

In 1984, the pier was revitalised by the Noble Organisation, its new owner. An £8m refurbishment programme followed and admission charges were dropped.

Arifa Akbar