17 Dec 2013 – Conwy council has voted to demolish Colwyn Bay’s Victoria pier – just six months after the pier was awarded a £594,900 development grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Back then, the headlines reflected public (and official) optimism over the pier’s future. So, what’s changed in six months?
The original estimates cited by the council in 2010 were:
♦ Demolition of pier: £1.2m
♦ Rebuilding the basic pier (as a “boardwalk”): £3.5m
♦ Rebuilding pier + “basic pavilion”: £5.5m
New figures were cited for the demolition vote (Dec 2013):
♦ Demolition: £1m
♦ Basic “boardwalk” pier refurbishment: £3.7m
♦ Pier refurbishment + new kiosks: £4.1m
♦ Pier + main pavilion refurbishment: £8.9m
♦ Pier refurbishment + new build (as per HLF bid): £11.5m
The figure of “£15m” that you may have seen in media reports refers to the £11.5m figure, but with £4m (approx) added on for “contingency and possible inflation“, etc. (An addition that’s unique to this option).
A petition to save the pier had been signed by thousands, and its organisers (Victoria Pier Pressure Group) told ITV that the number of people who had expressed a preference for demolition was tiny by comparison.
And while the council voted for demolition, the public voted for refurbishment: 75% of respondents to a Daily Post poll favoured restoring the pier; 50% preferred the “boardwalk” option; only 25% chose demolition.*
Further evidence of public opposition to the council’s vote is provided by a new online petition to overturn it – which quickly attracted several hundred signatories. Even more striking is that most of these signatories commented, stating the reason why they want the pier preserved. (Comment was optional under the petition). It should make interesting reading for the councillors who voted to demolish. (Click here and zoom as necessary to read comments).
Demolition vs “boardwalk”
The “boardwalk” refurbishment option would cost £2.7m more than demolition (according to the estimates). But the total cost of pursuing the demolition option may have been underestimated. The estimated £1m (£986,700) demolition figure does not include costs likely to be incurred from what the council describes as the “cons” of demolition, including (but not restricted to):
“Complex and lengthy procedure to be followed to gain delisting from CADW with likely challenge from community/stakeholders”.
“Need to establish a business case/funding for alternative focal point at this point on the waterfront”.
The costs involved here would hardly be insignificant. On the first point, planning consultants, PLPlanning have usefully commented (my bold):
It follows, in our view, that yesterday’s resolution [to seek de-listing and demolition of the pier] on the grounds the Council wishes to advance must fail. The council appears not to have realised this. The only choice open is to apply for LBC [Listed Building Consent] which triggers all the policy and statutory tests. As a ball park we would imagine maybe £250k budget for an LBC application, public inquiry, judicial review/appeals and perhaps another 2 years of uncertainty before a decision is resolved. And quite how, given the evidence of suitable alternatives and interests will the tests for demolition be met? The bar is very high and we don’t think the Council has realised yet.
Additionally, the council seems to have partially forgotten its own advice (section 4.19):
Demolition or partial demolition of the Pier are options but for a listed building such as this options that achieve its preservation should be considered in the first instance. Options should consider sequentially full preservation and then, if this is not possible, partial preservation. The structural appraisal completed to date indicates that the condition of the structural steel components of the Pier are better than expected.
We’re told that the decision to demolish the pier is a good thing since it gets rid of the “uncertainty”. But this seems to be spurious reasoning at best, and misleading PR at worst. There is nothing certain about the procedure “to gain delisting” which the council acknowledges is “complex and lengthy” (and which the planning consultants have more things to say about, regarding uncertainty/failure). And that’s to say nothing of the ongoing legal issue regarding ownership.
An analogy would be hurrying the decision to turn off a life-support machine, even when recovery is known to be possible (albeit difficult and costly) because, hey, at least death gets rid of “uncertainty”. And sickness/decay is such an eyesore – it distracts from all the healthy things we’re trying to promote… like jet-skiing.
“Sustainability” & double standards
As for lack of “sustainability” (and other variants on the “no money available” argument), one needs only to look along the prom towards Porth Eirias (cost: approx £4m, and rising) to see why people are perplexed when this argument is used against the pier. Double standards seem to apply. Porth Eirias stands empty, full of dead space and unused conference rooms. It’s far too big for its intended purpose, was shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup (by a panel of independent experts) and shows no indication of being “sustainable” (I’m happy to be proved wrong on the latter point, but even with an income stream from the planned bistro, I can’t see a building of this size “sustain” itself without a large, regular supply of public money, or a drastic change of function). In terms of justifying its existence, there seems to be one type of economic logic for the pier, and another for Porth Eirias.
The pier that “lets the town down”
The Daily Post quotes Darren Millar as saying that the pier is “the one thing that lets the town down”. They also attribute to him this view: “he feared that the pier was holding back the regeneration of the town”. I hope this was a misattribution, but whether it’s Millar’s words or the reporter’s, it highlights the absurdity of the terms in which the pier is debated. The pier is a decaying, but once elegant, inanimate structure. It’s not “holding back” anything.
Indeed, it must take a certain type of imaginative effort to see the pier as “holding back” the town’s regeneration. Couldn’t the same imaginative effort be used instead to see the pier as restored, functional, appreciated, gleaming in the sunlight and at the heart of Colwyn Bay’s thriving promenade? It could be such an incredible asset and attraction for Colwyn Bay – for just £2.7m more than the estimated cost of demolition.
Finally, a few of the hundreds of comments posted by locals to the above-mentioned petition:-
“An iconic structure for my entire life as a Colwyn Bay local. It would be a tragedy not to renovate this gorgeous structure!”
“It is a landmark site which should be preserved.”
“Local heritage and cultural icons should be protected, restored and nurtured.”
“It’s a Victorian pier and is a great piece of history. Why spend all that money on the new build which is an eyesore!! We should protect our heritage not knock it down.”
“The pier is an essential part of Colwyn Bay’s history and could play an important role in its regeneration.”
*As at 12/12/2013 (see image) – ie four days into the poll.
Dec 2011 – Have you ever seen an ugly building in an area of beauty, and thought: “How did they allow that?”. This could be the reaction of thousands of visitors to Colwyn Bay promenade in the coming years – unless there is a reappraisal of the current construction plans.
The problem, which I illustrate below, is fundamental design change to the Watersports Hotspot building. Changes from the original winning design have altered the appearance and character of the building – to ill effect. (And despite the good intentions of the planners).
There seems to be a lack of awareness of these design changes – not just among members of the public, but also among some of the people promoting the design. This has been compounded by “public consultations” which have mixed up images of the original and altered designs (more on this below).
Detail is important
With buildings of this type, architectural detail is crucial – it can make all the difference between institutional-looking design (blocky, featureless) and attractive architecture. The original proposals show how the architects addressed this challenge – with curved walls, projecting roof section, glass surfaces, interesting features, attractive human-scale detail, etc.
Most of these features are absent in the changed version (ie the version that’s to be built). The underlying concept remains, but we’re left with two crudely intersecting ramps, ugly “internal” corners (which were pleasing curves in the original). The light, airy character of the original design has been replaced by featureless, heavy slab-like expanses.
Reasons for the changes
The Waterfront Team held some public sessions between 8-10 December (mainly, I think, to invite suggestions for naming the facility). I went along and asked one of the representatives about the design changes. At first she denied all knowledge of changes to the design, but after I returned with prints of the original proposals from the council website, she commented that “building regulations” and “cost” prevented the original proposals from being followed.
That’s all well and good – architectural designs are nearly always constrained by such mundane considerations. But I’d like to think these important constraints were considered before the winning design was chosen – at least to some extent (if not in detail). Otherwise, what realistic basis is there for choosing a given design?
A building like this depends on ambitious features and detailing to prevent it having a heavy, slab-like institutional appearance. If those features were never really feasible from the outset (due to the constraints of cost and building regulations, etc), then the whole concept is undermined. An unattractive building is sometimes worse than no building.
Such things are subjective, of course – and I hope I’m proved wrong. Or maybe there will be some design enhancements, so that we don’t end up with the heavy, featureless slab-like appearance shown in the most recent computer simulations.
The representative I spoke to assured me there is public approval for the design. Well, there was certainly public support for the original, attractive design. The story gets murkier when it comes to the altered design. For one thing, few people seem aware that the design has been altered. In the public sessions I went to (on 9 & 10 December), there seemed to be resistance (from the representatives) to the very notion that the design had substantially changed. (Nobody can be in any doubt of the changes from the images shown).
At the Dec 9 session, the leaflets given out showed the original design (not the design to be built, although there were pictures of the latter on display). At the Dec 10 session, a large poster-size image displayed prominently (outside the entrance) showed the original design (images of the design to be built were shown inside).
Given this rather confused (and uninformed) situation, claims of “public approval” for the altered design seem premature. While there are many images available of the original winning design (from all angles, including interior views), most people I’ve spoken to have seen the changed design from only a few perspectives (the main ones on display being this and this). What does the road-facing elevation look like, for example? (We know what it looks like in the original design).