'Enduring symbol' of Brighton is worth restoring, says heritage body

English Heritage has backed controversial plans to restore an historic pier which has been gutted by a series of mysterious fires and battered by storms.

The heritage organisation, which carried out a review of the £44m plan to refurbish Brighton's derelict West Pier, said the structure was "an enduring symbol" which was still of architectural importance.

But the decision will arouse opposition. The Noble Organisation, which owns Brighton's other pier, the Palace Pier, mounted a legal appeal in the European Court of Justice against lottery funding for the pier's refurbishment and the work is still the subject of a public inquiry. A local protest group, Save Our Seafront, has also launched a campaign against the design plans.

English Heritage was asked to review the proposal to restore the pier following suspected arson attacks in March and May, which were preceded by storms that left the structure partly collapsed into the sea.

Brighton City Council feared the Grade I-listed pier might have been damaged beyond repair, but a report compiled by independent experts at English Heritage concluded that although more rebuilding would be necessary, the fires had not affected the significant aspects of the structure.

It read: "The West Pier was the most important pleasure pier ever built in terms of its climactic and seminal engineering design, its architectural ambition and as an enduring social symbol of Brighton as the acme of seaside resorts. Repair and reconstruction would allow these significances to be appreciated."

A spokeswoman said the report covered conservation issues by comparing the pier to other listed buildings which had been damaged by fire, such as Windsor Castle.

The announcement was welcomed by the West Pier Trust, a charity which owns the pier and is fighting to restore it with the help of a £14m Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Rachel Clark, the Trust's general manager, said Brighton City Council had also given the plans its full backing and that the Heritage Lottery Fund would re-examine the proposals in January.

"This should reassure the public that the West Pier still has a bright future. It is an unequivocal endorsement that shows the country's main heritage organisation supports the restoration without a shadow of a doubt.

"After the two fires, this is a very important endorsement," she said.

The 1,000ft pier was built in 1866 and is one of two Grade I-listed piers in the country, the other being Clevedon. Once thriving, it has not been open to the public since 1975.

It was considered to be one of the finest seaside piers ever and received listed status before falling into dereliction.

In its heyday during the 1920s its ornate ballroom and pavilion attracted thousands of visitors every summer. Reconstruction work is due to start in 2005 if the legal challenges fail and the pier could once again be open to the public by 2007.

In February this year, planning permission was granted for its restoration, but was made subject to conditions.

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