Birnbeck's saviour?

A BORN and bred Westonian will head a multi-million pound scheme to resurrect Birnbeck Pier, which has been bought up in a whirlwind purchase

A BORN and bred Westonian will head a multi-million pound scheme to resurrect Birnbeck Pier, which has been bought up in a whirlwind purchase.The crumbling structure has been sold to award-winning Manchester-based developer Urban Splash for at least £100,000. The company would not say exactly how much it paid.The handover took place on Friday following negotiations which began just four months ago.The project will be overseen by regional managing director Jason Collard, who has strong Weston roots. Mr Collard, aged 39, grew up on Weston's Oldmixon estate and attended Broadoak School. He worked for a firm of architects in Waterloo Street and played for several local football teams, including Hutton, Banwell and Weston St Johns, while his brother, Jarad, who still lives in the town, played for Weston rugby club's first team.Mr Collard, who now lives in Portishead, said: "We bought the pier because we have an entrepreneurial hunch about it."We'd like to see a mixed-use development that might have a small hotel, restaurant, homes, business space or a visitor centre. "I remember going there regularly as a child with my family when my impression was that one pier represented Weston as it was 100 years ago and the other the modern Weston."Anything we do will respect the difference in the town's two piers, with Birnbeck being somewhere tranquil and sophisticated."A lot of the buildings are falling down. If some have to be sacrificed for the greater good, that's the commercial reality of it. The important bit is the pier itself, that's what we've got to work tirelessly to maintain."Part of what we want to do is get back public access. Clearly the development would be commercial, but it doesn't stop it from being enjoyed by all."It could be six months before we put pen to paper on a scheme and two or three years before we have a solution that is acceptable to English Heritage, North Somerset Council and the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust.Mr Collard, who left South West developers The Berkely Group for Urban Splash four years ago to head up its first regional office, said: "Urban Splash's track record is incredible. We've always delivered on projects and move forward as soon as we get planning consent."Peter Lay, who bought the pier in the late 1990s, would not disclose the sale price but said he has made a loss of between £50,000-100,000.He said: "Urban Splash has the track record, financial muscle and relationship with Government agencies to deliver on Birnbeck. "We were offered more money by another party who was very anxious to get the pier at the same time as Urban Splash, but went with Urban Splash because we wanted an orderly transition to the regeneration of Birnbeck."It has been a disappointment for us not to be able to run ferries from the pier, which is why we originally bought it."Mr Lay said the island's current buildings were not viable for any commercial project.BIRNBECK Pier began life in 1864 when the bigwigs of the time said Weston needed a pier.* A public holiday was called when the pier opened in 1867 and in the first three months 120,000 peope flocked to the attraction.* In 1882 the first lifeboat was based on pier. A lifeboat house was built in 1889 and the country's longest slipway added in 1902.* Fire destroyed many buildings in 1897 and architect Hans Price was brought in to design replacements.* A new craze for roller skating saw a rink built along with a host of other attractions at the turn of the century.* Scientists took over the island during World War Two to experiment with new weapons.* The last regular ferry service dropped off passengers to the island in 1971.* A special Birnbeck currency was used when the island became a Victorian themed pleasure centre under new owner John Critchley, who paid £50,000 for the pier and island.* Philip Stubbs became the pier's fourth owner in 1990 but he failed to develop plans for a £150m 'village on the sea'. * Fires, gales and other accidents eventually made the pier unsafe and it closed to the public in 1994. * Peter Lay bought the pier in the late 1990s, but failed to revive a ferry service.* Manchester-based developer Urban Splash bought the pier for an undisclosed sum in September 2006.* THE success of Manchester-based Urban Splash has been as quick as its purchase of Birnbeck Pier.Formed in 1993, the firm has built 1,000 homes and created 500,000sq ft of commercial space in places such as Manchester, Liverpool, Plymouth, Birmingham, Bristol and Bradford. It is also credited with being involved in developing 6,000 apartments worth £1billion.All its projects are on brownfield sites, mostly in cities ,though it has begun investing in smaller urban areas such as Weston. It has kept the freeholds of all its sites and has assets worth £30.4m.Though Urban Splash has no experience dealing with piers, it has seen through risky projects such as the dilapidated art-deco Midland Hotel in down-at-heel Morecambe and the 350,000sq ft Fort Dunlop building in Birmingham, which had been empty for 25 years.The day the company acquired Birnbeck it also signed a deal to take on a harbour-side development in Watchet, Somerset.Projects in the pipeline include the £40m redevelopment of Imperial House in Bristol, the former home of Imperial Tobacco, to create 358 apartments and 17,000sq ft of commercial space as well as the historic Royal William Yard in Plymouth. In one of its Manchester housing schemes, all the available properties sold out in two hours.The firm picked up 33 awards last year, adding to a total of 180 gongs for architecture, design, regeneration and enterprise, including Royal Institute for British Architects awards for all but one of its building projects.It was founded by Jonathan Falkingham and chairman Tom Bloxham MBE, who has said he is excited about the purchase of Birnbeck Pier.The firm is said to enjoy a close working relationship with English Heritage following the successful conversion of listed buildings in the north and has worked closely with the South West Regional Development Agency on its Plymouth development.Urban Splash is investing £100m in seven projects in the south west which are expected to yield £200m.The private company, which employs about 140 people, released profit figures recently showing takings to March 2006 had risen by 77 per cent on the previous year to £8.5m.The firm's construction arm, Urban Splash Build, completed £54.3m of work on time and budget last financial year and has another £190m of construction projects under way.* THE sale of Birnbeck Island could unlock a significant investment in the lifeboat station by the RNLI.Though the rescue service and new owners Urban Splash are yet to discuss access arrangements, the RNLI is hopeful that its future presence will be assured.The service has wanted to invest over £750,000 renovating the lifeboat station and slipway, but will only go ahead with assurances over the long term future of the pier.Its heavier Atlantic class boat has been forced to move to the River Axe at Uphill because of the slipway's poor condition, while the D-Class boat is still operating from Birnbeck.Regional inspector Simon Pryce told the Weston & Somerset Mercury: "We are looking at the sale positively, but we've been here before so we have a certain amount of caution."Any news is good news when it comes to Birnbeck. "We now look forward to meeting the new owners to find out what their time frames are for repairing the pier."Urban Splash regional managing director Jason Collard said: "We have no plans to ask the RNLI to move on. The service was always part of the Birnbeck experience for me and I remember going down as a boy and seeing the boats. "We really want it to stay and we are hoping to meet with their representatives shortly.