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i360 architect defends Brighton tower amid ‘white elephant’ claims

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The architect of the Brighton i360 has defended the observation tower against criticism that it is in danger of becoming a ‘metal stick […] with no value’

Julia Barfield, chair of the Brighton i360 board and co-founder of Marks Barfield Architects, which designed and developed the 162m-high viewing tower, has responded to claims made by opposition city councillor Steve Bell. 

Bell, Conservative group leader on the Labour-run Brighton & Hove City Council, wants the i360 board to answer questions about its operation at a public meeting following the deferral of loan repayments to the council.

He said: ’I think they do need to come and hear what the residents have to say, because it is the residents that are going to end up picking up this £36 million debt if the business fails.’

Bell told the AJ he was concerned the council could end up with ‘a white elephant’. He added: ’If the business fails, [we’re] just going to end up with a metal stick stuck in the middle of Brighton with no value.’

It isn’t currently failing, nor are there indications that it will fail in the future

However, Barfield said: ‘There’s no factual evidence to say that the business will fail. It isn’t currently failing, nor are there indications that it will fail in the future.’

She added that the attraction had made a number of changes to its operations and had achieved a 22.5 per cent improvement in visitor numbers in the past seven months, compared with the same period last year. 

The original loan to the i360 from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) via the council was £36.2 million. It was planned that the loan would be repaid on an annuity basis until 2041, including a market interest rate, meaning six-monthly payments of £1.492 million, including both capital repayment and interest.

Last month, the city council’s policy, resources and growth (PR&G) committee agreed to defer £1.342 million of the total payment due to the council on 30 June. Bell, a member of the committee, voted against the deferral.  

The committee previously agreed to defer £570,000 of the £1.492 million due on 30 June 2018 and £880,000 on 31 December 2018. 

A long-term restructure of the loan is expected this autumn and a council spokeswoman said i360 board members would attend a PR&G committee meeting when that happens. 

The £49 million seafront observation tower has carried more than a million passengers since it opened in August 2016 but visitor numbers have been lower than anticipated. As a result, i360 was not able to make the full anticipated payments to the council. 

A report for last month’s committee meeting stated that the ‘iconic structure’ has been ‘a catalyst for regeneration’ in Brighton.

Barfield told the AJ that the viewing tower was the city’s most visited paid-for attraction and contributed to the visitor and local economy, including by providing direct employment for more than 100 people, and supporting local suppliers and charities.

Last year, the council appointed visitor attraction specialists LDP to look into the  tower’s performance. According to council papers, the company found that the attraction was ‘underperforming in key market sectors’ and that this could be attributed to a lack of spending on marketing.  

LDP suggested that if i360 were to perform at the expected level for an attraction of its type – achieving visitor figures of 486,419 by 2021/22 – it would be able to pay all of the PWLB element of its loan from 2021/22.

business report written by Barfield in May noted that i360 had appointed a new general manager in January, reduced staffing costs and increased its marketing budget in line with LDP’s recommendation.

She told the AJ: ‘With current performance and projections, the i360 will be able to make future loan repayments.’

She said the board had already taken ‘a proactive stance, meeting with elected representatives of the local residents and community’ and added that members had met the council leader and senior council executives, and were currently organising meetings with leaders of all political parties on the council as well as local MPs. 

‘These meetings are allowing us to ensure that the true situation is understood and hopefully clear up any misunderstandings about the funding and operation of the i360,’ she said.

Daniel Yates, deputy chair of the PR&G committee, said: ‘Right now, the city’s financial interest is best served by giving the i360 time to get itself onto a more financially sustainable footing.

‘We are satisfied to see that the practical steps the attraction has taken over recent months have resulted in positive progress. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and an option for a long-term loan restructure will be considered by P&R committee, before the December payment is due.

‘As caretaker of this loan, we will continue to support the attraction’s success while doing everything we can to ensure its financial obligations to the city are fulfilled.’

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