Chris Eubank is charming, eccentric and unpredictable. He is also part of City Partnership, the consortium mounting a last-ditch bid to save Brighton’s grade I-listed West Pier from demolition. We went to discover what the story was – and was just a little surprised at what he found

West Pier
West Pier

The former WBO middleweight and super middleweight world champion refuses to come out of his £2m pad in Hove to talk to us. His business partner, John Regan, a builder who has been his friend for the past 15 years, is in despair. “I love the guy, but when he gets like this, forget it,” he says with a swipe of his hand.

Chris Eubank and Regan had agreed to meet Building to discuss their consortium, City Partnership, and its plans to salvage and rebuild Brighton’s crumbling West Pier. So, what’s up? Regan, who set up the meeting, has been on holiday for the previous two weeks. He says that in that time, something about the pier must have upset Eubank. If that is true, it wouldn’t be surprising. The former boxer has spent the past 10 years fighting to save Eugenius Birch’s 1866 grade I-listed masterpiece. Regan suggests that Eubank may now be at the end of his tether. Then there’s the fact that Eubank’s wife Karen has been away on holiday for four weeks and, as anyone who has seen At Home with the Eubanks will know, she provides her spouse with much of his emotional propping.

Whatever the reasons, Regan is worried.

He needs Eubank’s support. City Partnership is £10m short of the £23m it needs to finance its restoration proposals, and Eubank’s name can open the doors of public bodies to plug the funding gap. With Eubank on board, Regan can set up meetings with the likes of Simon Thurley, who heads English Heritage, and the powers that be at the Heritage Lottery Fund. “I’ve got to get Chris on the phone to them to see where we can go from here,” he says.

Regan’s way has been cleared by the collapse of a rival developer’s plans to restore the pier.

St Modwen ran into trouble in January, when it told the lottery that it needed an extra £5m on top of the £14m it had been promised. The lottery declined, but agreed to reconsider its decision if EH came up with cheaper plans. Last month, EH announced that it could not, and St Modwen walked away.

Geoff Lockwood, the chief executive of the Brighton West Pier Trust, a pressure group set up to push for the restoration of the pier, summed up the mood: “It is a national and civic disgrace that the pier has been allowed to get into its current state, and the public authorities charged with maintaining England’s heritage continue to give priority to the interests of elites.”

Carole Souter, director of the Heritage Lottery Fund, responds that St Modwen’s proposals were seen as too risky. “There were still concerns that there wasn’t cost certainty about it, it could get even more excessive,” she says. “As staff and trustees, we go to great lengths to make sure we’re committing the fund to projects that work. It’s why sometimes we say no to projects.”

But the end of the pier may not be nigh. Regan has been working on alternative proposals for years and now, with St Modwen out of the way, he believes that he has a chance to put forward a better plan. For a start, he is asking for less lottery grant: the property group Marylebone Warwick Balfour will provide all but £10m of the money needed. If the lottery agrees to fill the gap, he says the twisted steel and burned-out timber of the pier could be removed this winter, ready for reconstruction work in the spring.

Regan argues that his plans are better thought-out than St Modwen’s. By using state-of-the-art equipment, he can remove and archive the damaged parts of the pier even in the harshest winter weather conditions, while keeping the ornate columns for his own project. Stephen Johnson, the heritage fund’s operations director, met Eubank earlier this year and told him that he was “open to suggestions” if his team came up with strong proposals.

It was lovely to meet Chris Eubank. He was very charming. But we would not recommend that his plans get public money

Andrew Johnson, English Heritage

Johnson confirms that he met Eubank after the former boxer contacted him, but he adds that he advised him to work with interested parties to sharpen up his proposals. Johnson agrees that the heritage fund would look at any new proposals, but would have to be convinced that they were sustainable.

If Regan and Eubank managed to do that, they would then be faced with Dr Andrew Johnson, EH’s regional director. He says EH is unlikely to change its mind and that he would not advise the use of public money on any plans of the pier, no matter how revised. “It was lovely to meet Chris Eubank,” he says, “he was very charming and committed to making the pier come to life again. But we would not be able to recommend that it would get public money – although we’re not closing the door on a privately funded scheme.”

Clearly, the battle for public funds is a political one, and City Partnerships needs to build up a coalition of allies. Regan already has the support of the Noble Organisation, an entertainment group that operates Brighton’s Palace Pier, and Save Our Seafront, a lobby group that opposed St Modwen’s plans.

Noble had threatened to mount a legal challenge to the use of lottery funding to St Modwen on the grounds that it constituted state aid to a competitor. It complained to the European commission, and this resulted in plans for the West Pier being put on hold for a year. Further legal challenges looked possible if St Modwen had secured EH approval.

Save Our Seafront was worried that the scale of the developer’s proposals, which included massive retail and restaurant elements, would ruin the Brighton coastline. Regan’s group has more modest ambitions. The centrepiece and financial driver of the project would be an 80-bedroom hotel, but this would consist of slender eight- to 10-storey towers that would not intrude to heavily on sight lines. Hotel operator Malmaison, a subsidiary of the property group MWB that is funding the project, is believed to have signed heads of terms to run it. Regan says Eubank plans to take one of the hotel’s suites – unsurprising given that the ex-pugilist once declared he wanted to live in the concert hall of the pier itself.

Noble is thought to regard Regan’s scheme as a complement rather than as competitor to the Palace Pier – the remainder of the scheme would largely consist of tea rooms, two to four restaurants and a 365-day-a-year exhibition on the main pier decking called “The Brighton Story”. Regan says Eubank met the organisation’s boss, Andrew Noble, on a plane after a book signing, and this helped smooth relations between the two groups. It would also, of course, placate the heritage funds fear of spending public money on a court case.

The aim of Regan’s project is to stitch the West Pier into the fabric of a regenerated town. A nearby paddling pool would be converted into conference facilities – fulfilling a long-term ambition of the council. A monorail would run past the pier and connect it with an area earmarked for a new town centre. Regan is also keen to get in contact with PY Gerbeau, the former Millennium Dome boss, whose current employer, X-Leisure Fund, has splashed out £65m on the commercial element of Brighton marina. “The West Pier could be part of a much bigger scheme, particularly with its link to the monorail,” Regan says. “Hopefully, City Partnership can be the catalyst that stitches the elements together.”

Nick Lomax, the managing director of Cassidy Edwards & Lomax, the architect behind Regan’s designs, is more upbeat today than he was in the aftermath of EH’s report. He says that by bringing the West Pier into the broader regeneration of Brighton it could still be salvaged, and he is in talks with interested parties about drawing up the masterplan himself. He adds: “To get the go-ahead for the West Pier on its own would be quite difficult, but as part of a wider strategy it has got a chance.”

EH and the heritage fund will need some convincing if Regan is to fulfil his dream. And one thing is for certain: Eubank will need to be on top form and his best behaviour if Regan is get through doors that are now barely ajar. Six years since he last entered the ring, Regan better hope that Eubank is still a winner.

The boxer and the builder: How they met

John Regan met Chris Eubank in the late 1980s after Ronnie Davis, one of his employees, started training the young boxer. A couple of years later, Eubank became a household name after beating Nigel Benn, the world middleweight champion, in one of the most famous bouts in British boxing history.

By that time, the two had became firm friends. Regan was at the ringside during Eubank's many wars, and at one point stayed with the Eubanks for nine months.

He converted the property next to Eubank's home into a personal gym and designed a piece of apparatus - a kind of heavy bag with four targets to help boxers to work on combinations - that helped him in the run-up to his fight with Henry Wharton, considered by many pundits to be Eubank's most complete performance. Lennox Lewis later used the same device to prepare for his fights with the legendary Evander Holyfield.

Regan's relationship with Eubank has always been stormy - he claims to have been the only man to have ever had a fight with Eubank outside the ring - but they remain close, and he is godfather to one of Eubank's children.

Eubank is now thought to be in need of cash, and is hoping to make some by redeveloping his £2m home and gym into blocks of flats. Despite complaints from neighbours, it is understood that council officers have indicated their support for the plans and they should get approval in September.