Weston-super-Mare RNLI announce hopes to return to Birnbeck Island

Lifeboats News Release

After years of decline at the mercy of the wind and the tide, the fortunes of a Grade II* listed Pier in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset look set to brighten thanks to efforts by North Somerset Council, Historic England and the RNLI.

Birnbeck Pier, a Victorian structure built in 1862, is unique due to its connection to Birnbeck Island - the only pier in the country to connect the mainland to an island. The privately-owned pier has continued to deteriorate over many years, moving onto Historic England’s national at-risk register in 1999.

North Somerset Council’s concern about the deterioration of the pier resulted in the serving of a repairs notice to the private owner in September 2019. In late 2019, the RNLI began initial conversations with the council and Historic England on the possibility of the charity moving back to the Island, which would include a transfer of ownership.

On the 14 July, North Somerset Council received backing from full council to begin a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to acquire Birnbeck Pier. This process could take up to 18 months until conformation is received from the Secretary of State.

Leader of the Council, Don Davies, said: “We are delighted that an organisation as professional as the RNLI has decided to step in and potentially take ownership of Birnbeck Pier. We have given the owner many opportunities over the years to undertake the necessary repairs needed to preserve the pier, without success, even starting legal action to CPO the site as a last resort. This is a fantastic result following a great deal of work from council officers, Historic England and the RNLI.

Clearly there is a lot of work to do to restore the Pier and re-establish the lifeboat station back to its original home. We would like to thank Historic England for their ongoing support in securing a future for Birnbeck Pier and look forward to seeing this historic structure reopened to the public, as well as providing vital lifesaving to North Somerset.”

Duncan Macpherson, RNLI Principal Estate Manager says: “The RNLI are really encouraged by the positive steps being taken by North Somerset Council to initiate a CPO process in order to take ownership of Birnbeck Island. The charity has been working alongside North Somerset Council and Historic England on the feasibility of re-establishing a lifeboat station on Birnbeck Island and this is a significant step towards that goal.

Weston-super-Mare is a very important search and rescue base for the RNLI but is also a very complex area in which to build a lifeboat station. Birnbeck Island offers the best solution for the safe and most effective launch and recovery for the volunteer lifeboat crew at all states of the tide. The move will be a significant investment for the charity and the future of lifesaving in Weston-super-Mare. Of course, the pier also has huge historical significance to the community of Weston-super-Mare and, although there are a number of challenges to overcome still, the RNLI are delighted to be part of the journey to bring it back to its former glory.”

Mike Buckland, volunteer Lifeboat Operations Manager for Weston-super-Mare RNLI says:

“We are delighted that North Somerset Council has received the backing of the full council to begin a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to acquire Birnbeck Pier.

After many years of investigations into the feasibility of other sites, we are confident that Birnbeck is the safest and most effective place for a lifeboat station in Weston, by quite some margin. It is the only place we can provide a lifesaving service at all states of tide.

The restoration of the historic pier will be funded by the application of grants awarded specifically for that purpose. We are fortunate to be able to work closely and be guided by Historic England on this aspect of the project and are grateful for the support from them and North Somerset Council throughout the process so far.”

Rebecca Barrett, Regional Director for Historic England in the South West, said: “This is wonderful news. Birnbeck Pier is one of England’s finest Victorian piers, but it has been on our Heritage at Risk Register for over 20 years. We are delighted that such a promising solution has now come forward. We will continue to work closely with the RNLI, North Somerset Council and other partners to rescue this outstanding and much-loved structure.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

· Birnbeck Pier is Grade II* listed with five further Grade II structures and buildings located on the island and the landward end of the site.

· The pier was designed by Eugenius Birch, the noted Victorian engineer

· Construction took place between 1862 and 1867, with the foundation stone being laid in 1864 and opening to the public from 1866. The pier closed to the public for safety reasons in 1994.

· WSM is one of busiest RNLI lifeboat stations in the country. Between 2014 and 2019 the volunteer crew launched 242 times, assisted 72 people; and saved 26 lives.

· The RNLI have had a presence on Birnbeck Island since 1882 but were forced to leave the island in 2014 due to the deterioration of the pier, which had become unsafe. The gradual decline of the pier and the sustainability of the situation at Weston has been a known risk for many years and attempts to find a long-term solution have been ongoing, with 13 sites over almost 8 km of coastline being reviewed and assessed for suitability as a base for the RNLI.

· The Bristol Channel has an extreme tidal range which makes the launch and recovery of a lifeboat difficult. At low tide the mudflats that surround Weston are exposed and in large sections, lifeboat launch and recovery equipment can’t operate.

· Birnbeck Island is surrounded by access to water at lower states of tide which significantly opens the operational window for the safe and most effective launch and recovery of lifeboats and is the preferred option for the location of the lifeboat station.

Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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