The Curious Case of South Parade Pier
It is of course a given that I like old things. I also believe we should preserve our heritage. I often wander down Old Portsmouth High Street and wonder what it would have looked like had half of the 17th century houses not been blitzed. Many people in Portsmouth feel the same. There are preservation groups for Portsmouth Football Club, for the Mary Rose and for the Kings Theatre – a Frank Matcham creation and a little slice of our capital (he also designed Hackney Empire and the London Palladium and Coliseum). Another group, the Portsmouth Society, has been awarding plaques and campaigning for conservation issues for decades. My formidable Grandma Jean was their treasurer for over 30 years and at 86 she still attends every meeting. A bit like Florence we probably have more heritage than we know what to do with and as a result our beloved South Parade Pier has been overlooked in favour of our more prominent tourist attractions such as the Dockyard and Southsea Castle.
Over the last few years the sea has attempted to reclaim our Edwardian masterpiece. South Parade Pier has seen some incredible action and most people here have a saucy memory or two of shenanigans and fumblings both above and below the pier. I won’t bore you with my own cherished memories – they are irrelevant. Nor do I need to list its historical importance as many other articles have done justice to its links to World War II. Proper repairs are needed and the previous owners decided not to dig deep into their pockets a long time ago and, quite frankly, when the bills start to run into the millions, can you blame them? Herein lies part of the problem. To fix the pier correctly would cost private investors more than they could expect to make back.
Pier saving has become a bit trendy. Once the poster girls for jaded seaside towns up and down Britain, their sea legs are being strengthened ensuring they are ship-shape and Bristol fashion for many generations to come. Their cultural relevance has been remembered; like horizontal totem poles of Edwardiana. The National Lottery has got behind this and provides weighty donations to help with crippling costs. Not to private entities though but to organisations who pledge to save them with no financial benefit to themselves. The outstanding example of this has been Hastings Pier which has been in community ownership for over 16 months. Another restored pier of note is Penarth Pier Pavilion, a stunning Art Deco restoration which is now a multi-functional community space with the motto ‘involve, educate, inspire’. Looking around the websites of many recently saved piers one thing is clear from the numerous logos that line the bottom: lottery funding and other charitable aid has been crucial to their resurrection. Hastings Pier Charity was awarded a whooping £11.4 million. Why should our pier miss out on the same chances?
As nice and community focused as this sounds, this is not to say it’s not a serious business. For every group trying to save a pier there is often a counterweight trying to pull it back down to their level. In 2002 I stood in the glass-fronted dining room of the Hilton West Pier Hotel in Brighton and watched the pier collapse into the sea after what was widely assumed to have been an arson attack earlier on in the year. The entire metal frame simply melted into the waves. For years there had been talks of renovation. The rumour at the time was this did not feature in the business plan of another highly successful local pier. The point is, there are always people who will seek to further their own interests above and beyond all else.
Luckily here, we have the South Parade Trust. This super group of financiers, historians, architects, engineers and media professionals also include an IT consultant, a travel and tourism lecturer, a doctor, a retail manager, and a design lecturer. They are some of the most experienced people we have in this city. They dedicate their own time and resources to ensuring that, whoever owns it, they will do the pier justice and not just patch it up around the edges. If no private owner can do this they are looking into community-based ownership – I refer you again to the successful case of Hastings Pier, which launched a community share scheme in October 2013. Our Trust is the embodiment of the affection many people have for the pier and they firmly believe that community ownership is the only way that the pier can both be saved for future generations and deliver the enormous sums needed to restore South Parade Pier to its former glories.
I should probably add, with pride, that my father is part of this group. I am not. I cannot be – too hot-headed to do their professionalism justice. He watched the Pier burn down in 1974 during the filming of Ken Russell’s Tommy and now wants to make sure, 41 years on, that it remains standing. His involvement has made me chuckle quietly to myself on a number of occasions. Growing up, my dad was Mr. Capitalism. We earned our pocket money and he spent over three decades working as an international financial director for companies such as Boston Scientific and General Electric. Here he is now, putting his vast experience in billion pound deals to exactly the opposite: a self-sustaining, non-profit, community owned pier that will secure its future for years to come. For me personally this sums up the work of the trust, people using their expertise for community benefit. None of the trust has any vested interests in the Pier.
Unfortunately the Trust has suffered a prolonged and sustained attack. Not by any prospective owners but by one individual who is on a complex and bizarre personal crusade. The barrage of accusations and finger pointing has at times reached hysterical levels. Even more baffling, this opponent claims to represent both the views of the community and the views of a consortium of prospective buyers. Any opposition or even questioning of these views has been quickly silenced in a gross breach of the ethics of internet forum moderation. These character assassinations have proved time and time again to have little or no foundation. Thankfully this messiah complex has not yet yielded anything more tangible than a couple of Facebook pages filled with ‘followers’ who are being systematically spoon fed inaccurate information. Trying to be a big fish in a small pond is not uncommon on an island but the trust has dealt with this herring with dignity.
South Parade Pier has now arrived at a stage where it may be under new ownership and this will hopefully see the beginning of real action and discourse. We might now get the chance to hear from the new owners directly without third party interference. I personally wish them good luck. They may want to look to Southwold Pier for 21st century pier management inspiration, yet it is a huge task to undertake and private ownership has consistently failed our pier. Thus, the Pier Trust needs your support now more than ever. Until South Parade Pier is fully repaired along its entire length and opened, the Trust will continue its work. If you want to read their FAQ, have a look around their Facebook page and if you agree with them please lend them your support. They stand for transparency and clarity and even just simple ‘Like’ will help them achieve that. 2015 looks set to be a pivotal year for the pier and if the chance for community ownership arises they will have to move quickly. According to the National Pier Society we have already lost 41 Piers in the UK including seven on the Isle of Wight alone. Lets not add to that number. South Parade Pier is still a long way from being saved.