This town ain't big enough for the both of us

So it looks as if Brighton's ruined West Pier will finally be rebuilt. Good news? Well, the people who run Palace Pier don't seem to think so.
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The Palm Court fish and chip café on Brighton's Palace Pier served 200 tons of "quality" potatoes and 50 tons of "premium" cod in 1998. At least that's what its says on one of the Heritage Trail plaques dotted around the wooden rails which provide perches for many hefty seagulls. They're not daft, these birds. Long ago, they left the skeletal, rusting hulk of the West Pier to the pigeons and flew off for richer pickings down at the Palace. It's debatable how much of this pier's prodigious output of battered fish and fried spuds disappears into human mouths and how much into long, sharp beaks.

The Palm Court fish and chip café on Brighton's Palace Pier served 200 tons of "quality" potatoes and 50 tons of "premium" cod in 1998. At least that's what its says on one of the Heritage Trail plaques dotted around the wooden rails which provide perches for many hefty seagulls. They're not daft, these birds. Long ago, they left the skeletal, rusting hulk of the West Pier to the pigeons and flew off for richer pickings down at the Palace. It's debatable how much of this pier's prodigious output of battered fish and fried spuds disappears into human mouths and how much into long, sharp beaks.

As the afternoon sun sparkles on the English Channel, a gull is skewering a fat chip, smothered in ketchup, beneath another plaque which reads as follows: "The current owners have invested millions in ensuring the safety of the pier's visitors and therefore its future."

An innocent enough statement, on the face of it. Accurate, too. Some £850,000 goes on upkeep, repairs and essential replacement of equipment, according to the owners, the Noble Organisation of Gateshead. But, in the context of the row which is building in Brighton, the plaque could be seen as another shot across the bows of the West Pier Trust - a reminder of exactly why their beloved example of Victorian marine architecture was forced to close down in 1975. Nothing to do with fires, storms or boats crashing into it. Simple lack of investment was the cause.

Anyone with a couple of million to spare at the time could have put the structural problems right and restored the buildings to their pre-war glory. A quarter of a century on and the likely bill has risen to nearer £34m. Against the odds, there is now a chance that work on rebuilding Britain's only Grade I listed pier might begin in September. More likely it will start next spring. Especially since the London property group, Prestbury, backer of the Trust's private-sector partner, Eugenius, has just gone into voluntary liquidation.

Rachel Clark, general manager of the Trust, sounds unconcerned. "It's not a crisis, just another month's delay," she insists.

A month is but the blink of an eye in an interminable seaside saga. After this length of rusting old iron and rotting timbers was listed in 1982, another 12 years of degeneration passed before John Major addressed the English Heritage Conference in Brighton and proclaimed the West Pier a prime example of the objectives for which the National Lottery had been established. A bid went in the following year. In 1996, the Trust was granted £1m for emergency structural repairs to stop the entire edifice from collapsing into the sea. In 1998, another £14.2m was forthcoming - the second-biggest award ever provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Even then the Noble Organisation kept quiet while it carried on pulling in nearly four million visitors a year into the Palace Pier with attractions like the funfair, the amusement arcade, the karaoke bar and the Palm Court fish and chip café. Relations between the two piers remained amicable until this summer's unexpected offensive from the Palace.

First came a sudden change of name to "Brighton Pier", as if to emphasise that there can only be one. Then, through the front page of the Brighton Evening Argus, Noble director David Biesterfield claimed that public money was being used to distort fair competition. "Brighton will not sustain two piers," he said. "When the West Pier again runs into trouble, no doubt it will follow the lead of other lottery-funded losers such as the Dome, the Doncaster Earth Centre and the Sheffield Centre for Popular Music, and return for even more public subsidy."

There's little doubt that his comments have hit the Trust like seagull droppings from out of a clear blue sky. "An extraordinary outburst," Rachel Clark calls it. "And the change of name suggests he feels threatened. Yet we're aiming for a completely different market. Ours will be restaurant-led with a flexible performance space and conference facilities. We don't want amusement arcades. The two piers should complement one another."

Mr Biesterfield remains unappeased. "It's nonsense," he says. "Conservationists are always disparaging about amusements and fairground rides but, when things get tough, they'll trade down to the market that will sustain them. It's disingenuous to claim that they're not competing with our pier."

But why didn't the Noble Organisation say all this when the Lottery grant was forthcoming in 1998? "Because two central issues have changed. We now realise that it's going to be a hard-nosed commercial operation which all this public money is going to support. Secondly, the condition of the pier has deteriorated to the point where it can't be restored. They're going to have to pull down a listed structure and build a replica. It's not defensible as a conservation project. With great regret, I'd have to say frankly that the West Pier should be scrapped."

There's little chance of that. Too much time and effort has been expended on trying to retain it. Too much public money has been committed and too much public interest aroused. Since 1996, some 35,000 visitors have tottered gingerly across the temporary metal struts on one or another of the daily tours of the pier ruins. "And we haven't lost one yet," says Maureen Rawlinson, our guide this afternoon, as she hands me a lifejacket. "It's activated by salt water, should you make contact with the sea," she explains. "If it doesn't work, pull the toggle."

When it opened in 1866, this most elegant of piers had just six kiosks, including a toll booth. The Victorian gentry were happy to pay if it meant keeping out the riff-raff. They paraded up and down, breathing lungfuls of salty air and drinking a glass of sea water for its apparent health-giving properties. "Try that today and you'd be lucky to make the return trip," says Mrs Rawlinson, who is an entertaining hostess.

We can see blue sky through the fretwork of the shattered ceiling in the concert hall. But such are the elegant proportions of the room that it's not too difficult to imagine how it must have been in its 1920s heyday as a venue for roller-skating, afternoon tea dances or music-hall turns. Then there was the end-of-the-pier theatre, packed every night with 1,400 people, winter or summer. Elgar conducted here. Local comedian Max Miller had them rolling in the aisles. But the pier could never recovered its swagger in the post-war years. A process of long, slow decline set in, culminating in the present dereliction.

The future is more difficult to imagine than the past. Brighton and Hove Council has lured the private sector by offering 90,000 sq ft of seafront for bars, restaurants and shops in return for investment in the pier. Prestbury's offshoot, Eugenius, only entered the fray after top London restaurateur Oliver Peyton and his partners pulled out last year. Their dramatically modern design was turned down by English Heritage which is taking a close interest in the project, down to the shade of paint on the lamp-posts.

Meanwhile, the floor of the pier has to be raised by 4ft to take account of higher tides caused by global warming. "The sea level has risen by 9ins since 1866," says chief engineer Roger Bailey, "and we want this to last at least 100 years." Raising the foundation piles is one of the easier jobs, he maintains. Far more difficult will be his plan to put the concert hall on wheels and roll it to the shore for extensive repairs.

The sheer immensity of the task ahead can be gauged from the side of the old theatre at the far end of the pier. Dereliction is all too evident. Smashed green timbers are scattered around. Gutters are clogged with moss and grass. Fragments of glass cling to the edge of window frames. Pigeons are everywhere, and a solitary seagull is perched on a minaret. This bulky, brooding bird will have a long wait for any rich pickings hereabouts. And even then they're unlikely to take the form of fish and chips. Not for the foreseeable future, anyway.

Brighton West Pier Trust: 01273 321499. Tours every day at 1.30pm

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