Thoughts in a crisis

I’m finding it hard to begin this but I want to share some thoughts and an update, so here goes:

We are all reeling. We are what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called ‘Paranoid Readers’, desperately searching for information and meaning across a digital landscape the equivalent of a massive rubbish tip, and anxiously fearing the worst.

Olivia Laing’s excellent piece published last Saturday describes Sedgwick’s alternative – ‘Reparative Readers’ who are “fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison… This is not the same as being naïve or heedless, unaware of crisis or undamaged by oppression. Instead it’s about being driven to find or invent something new and vital out of inimical environments.” That sounds so like community businesses!

Jericho Road Solutions is all about the two-way street between neighbourhood and nation, about learning from experience on the ground, sharing those lessons to support other neighbourhoods, influence government and funders to try to make positive local change easier, and bring snippets of useful resources and information back home to Hastings.

My first response, back on 12th March was a scribbled note:

The Meaning of a Virus in Five Parts 

  1. Plague. Divides, terrorises, anyone can have it so it’s “me” against everyone else. Worse than wildfires or floods or hurricanes or even tsunamis – because it pits us against each other

2. Isolation. The idea of ‘self-isolation’ as a virtue, a duty – what that does to a society already suffering loneliness and social isolation

3. Anxiety. Existential threats generate authoritarian regimes (cf Gilead). Introduces fear into the social bloodstream

4. Breakdown. Collapse of services, businesses etc. “This virus will bankrupt a lot more people than it kills”

5. Response and resilience. What can we do?

Once I got to thought #5, it became obvious – we would need safe spaces and social spaces more than ever. That transformed discussions into a focus on resilience, survival and ‘distancing together’ and I’ve been trying to support that both locally and by sharing at national level ever since.

Hastings

There are two big grassroots responses from this fantastic community and they complement each other perfectly:

HEART (Hastings Emergency Action Response Team) was formed very quickly by just two people and now has over 2,500 members on FB and 900 signed-up volunteers including 45 Area Coordinators (generally people with recent DBS and experience of managing volunteers). Aiming to go live on Friday “to make sure everyone’s looked after”.

(tech: Facebook, Google Forms, Nationbuilder, Google Maps)

ISOLATION STATION has emerged in just 6 days as a new online TV station to bring Hastings unique culture into people’s living rooms. Leisure & Learning, the charity to activate the Hastings Commons, has adapted its proposed summer season. Hastings Voluntary Action and The Common Treasury of Adaptable Ideas are also supporting the initiative which is being driven by a multi-skilled team of locals. Contributors are coming forward to provide all kinds of content – all safely from their own homes. “Soft-launching” this evening as a work in progress!

(tech: Zoom, Facebook, VMix, ordinary private technology – web-cams etc, plus Ko.Fi and Patreon)

 

Sharing nationally

Community businesses across the Power to Change and Locality networks are coming together weekly (as of yesterday) as a CB Mutual Aid network to discuss emerging responses and share out the work of rapid innovation in multiple fields at once. Coordinators are taking responsibility for different theme ‘rooms’, including me supporting ‘online social connection/entertainment’ and others looking at food delivery, crowdfunding, helping people get online, supporting micro-enterprises, maintaining community based health and social care etc

(tech: Google Groups, Google Docs, Zoom)

 

What happens after?

This crisis has been astonishing, smashing business-as-usual and taking chunks out of TINA (There Is No Alternative). It shows that there are always alternatives, there is enormous scope for change if only we recognise how critically important it is. It relocates change where it belongs, in the political sphere where it is possible to make choices (and to be held to account for them). The question will be whether such expanded thinking can be used to make big positive changes for the long term…

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, JRS website, Thinking | Leave a comment

Whoever is Hastings’ new leader, let’s go to Wigan!

You and I and the other 95,000 Hastings inhabitants have no vote in the election that will happen tomorrow (17/2/20). Just 23 Labour councillors will choose the person who will lead our town for the next few years. Will we see puffs of white smoke coming from Muriel Matters House?!

It bothers me that the character and loyalties of the individual chosen tomorrow will be so important. In reality the impact will be felt in structural terms: the balance of power between councillors and officers, what happens to the discredited ‘regeneration agency’ Seaspace and its progeny, how long the council sticks to its commitment to council tax benefit. But most of all it is about attitude and behaviours, and that does come down to individual leadership. Which of tomorrow’s candidates will shape an environment in which Hastings Borough Council becomes a genuine partner to the incredible range of people who want to help make positive change in the town?

While many have been rightly admiring Preston I have been even more impressed by Wigan. Way back at the start of the austerity decade, the council’s response was to completely rethink what it should be and how it should behave. They introduced ‘the Wigan Deal’ and have transformed themselves as an institution, their relationships with residents, community groups and social enterprises, successfully improving all kinds of ‘outcomes’ from health and education to community pride and satisfaction.

Whoever is elected, I’d be delighted to coordinate a learning visit to Wigan where chief executive Alison McKenzie-Folan has very kindly offered to host a mixed group of councillors, officers and activists from Hastings. As we move towards a Town Deal for Hastings we need to be learning from each other, from the past, and from elsewhere.

Posted in Hastings, Self-renovating neighbourhoods | 1 Comment

The Lion & the Unicorn

The Lion and the Unicorn 1991

The Lion and the Unicorn

were fighting for the Crown.

The Lion beat the Unicorn

all around the Town.

Some gave them White Bread

and some gave them Brown,

And some gave them Plum-cake

and chased them Out of Town.


The Lion

The Unicorn

The Lion and the Unicorn

were fighting for the Crown

The Lion beat the Unicorn

all around the Town.

The Unicorn said “Fuck this,

it isn’t you I hate”

So they put their heads together

and turned against the State.

 

The Queen said “Oh, dearie me,

we can’t be having this.”

As the Revolutionary Couple

were just about to kiss.

“These are Pillars of the Empire

this upstart pair,

They mustn’t drown their enmity

it simply isn’t fair.”

 

Most alarming for Authority

was news of help the People gave,

Talk of bread and plum-cake gifts

to the Lady and her Knave.

The sympathetic, caring , sharing

mothers of the Working Class

Saw no sin in taking in

the Lion and his Lass.

 

The Cabinet hatched a counter-plot.

The Queen said “Clever boys!”

They took the country off to war

to cover up the noise,

Of the gates of the Tower closing

as the Portcullis slammed down,

And Tyburn Tree wheeled out again

by Order of the Crown.

 

And with the foggy, distant islands

flying the Union Jack

The fickle, feckless British Public,

glad to have its young lads back,

Got caught up in the jubilation,

courtesy of ITV

And forgot the tortured People’s Friends,

in the shout of ‘Victory!’

 

So the Unicorn was Martyred

and the Lion lost his claws

Two more reluctant heroes

for the Radical Cause.

At the Public Execution

there were rumblings from the Crowd

But Queenie never heard them,

‘Cos the truncheons had them cowed.

 

The Lion’s Roar was silenced with a memo to the Press

And all that appeared in the next day’s News

was Queenie’s nice new dress

The Creature’s Coup was over

before it had begun;

The forceful State had crushed a Show

it knew would run and run.

 

Broken-hearted, clawless,

the Lion lost his way.

He sold himself as a Symbol

to any that would pay.

Multi-national companies

fought over Copy-right

And the proudest beast that ever lived

had squandered all his might.

 

But the Unicorn is remembered

and little kids are told

Of the wild but gentle Dreamer

with a sturdy Heart of Gold.

What the Adults fail to mention

is the Coup that might have been

If the murdered Horse of Myth had had her Rights

Who’d now be Queen …. ?

 

1st November 1991

IMAGES – Jonny Thompson, Robertson Terrace, Hastings, 2019

Posted in Just Me | Leave a comment

Heart Break – Ore Valley let down again

The decision to sell the former power station site at Ore Valley to a private developer rather than to Heart of Hastings community land trust is finally sinking in for me, a fortnight after it was announced.

This is how I felt about the place in February 2017…

https://jesssteele.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/i-am-losing-my-heart-to-ore-valley/

Ore Valley has been let down from above over and over again. We were determined not to do that but to work through the Bottom Up Development team and with an approach led by talking to local people, on site, at events around the area, online, and on their doorsteps.

Between then and April 2019 I spent about 250 hours on the site, out of over 1,000 hours of my time-sheeted work in relation to developing the project. Many others spent many more hours: building a stage, a pizza oven, a tea hut, a bike hut, a compost toilet, raised beds. Holding events that attracted 500+ people, doing woodland walks, cultivating mushrooms, clearing, planting, surveying, nurturing the land and each other.

And all the time, planning the most exciting regeneration project possible – one that finally learns the lessons of all the others, one that ‘ticks all the boxes’ not cynically but because it is holistic not piecemeal, one that fundamentally brings people and land back together to rescue each other. We had great support from funders National Lottery Community Fund, Big Local and Power to Change and we built a great partnership with Bioregional Homes

And now, this…

Gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, skin-crawling.


https://hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/…/ore-valley-site-to-be-s…

https://www.hastingsindependentpress.co.uk/…/ore-valley-ho…/

Terrible process, terrible decision. And all in the name of “regeneration”.

Watching up close the asset-stripping and disempowerment of a place in the 0.5% poorest in the country is one of the most distressing experiences I’ve had or heard about in 30 years of watching some really bad regeneration in a lot of different places.

Ore Valley has great assets – people, land, nature – but the 40-year dereliction at its heart remains an apt metaphor for a gaping hole of power. How can we hope to ‘level up’ when these Reverse Robin Hoods are running the show?

#DIYRegen #OreValley #AskQuestions

Join Heart of Hastings as a shareholding member or get yourself on the Supporter list.

We will continue to find ways to create high quality long-term affordable homes, workspace and space for leisure, learning and community action. We will continue to prioritise the building of community strength over the building of roads or balance sheets. And we will continue to promote positive change that works for people and places.

The poor will always be poor until they can organise to create and protect common wealth and not have it stolen from them.

Posted in Ore Valley, Self-renovating neighbourhoods | Leave a comment

A Great Leap Forwards

Contracts have been exchanged for the purchase of the Observer Building in Hastings. Completion is expected on Weds 13th Feb 2019. 

The new owner is White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures (WRNV) (*1), a community-rooted developer owned by three socially-driven organisations, with voluntary covenants in the Shareholders Agreement to retain capped rents in perpetuity.

Sounds really dull! Why does this matter?

The Observer Building is a symbol of early 1920s optimism: a great big beautiful strong proclamatory edifice built out of pride to tell the stories of the town. Hard not to like…

On the other hand, Robert Tressell’s name for the local paper ‘The Obscurer’, reminds us that the extraordinary FJ Parsons empire in the America Ground area of Hastings was by no means politically or socially neutral.

But it was definitely lively and important – 500 jobs at its height and a position of real power and responsibility in an age where the local paper was pretty much the only source of local news.

Now here we are in 2019. The building has been empty and increasingly derelict for 34 years (bar the memorable 1-year meanwhile use in 2016). Far from being ‘unproductive’, however, it has made a profit (sic) for almost every owner over the years (*2). Buy cheap, get planning permission, sell on. Perfectly normal way to make a profit. Make almost no effort to protect or improve the building. Shame but the value just isn’t there. The globally-connected flows of capital that sweep in and out of places with no regard shown or expected towards any purely local interest.  That’s just the way the world is now.

But it’s not ok and it doesn’t have to be like this. It is possible to change things. Maybe you have to play some games – jump in, do the deal, climb out, wash off. But then, with freehold ownership, you can do what you want. And what we want is a sustainable asset that provides jobs, homes, leisure, opportunities and comfort to the people of Hastings. At a cost they can actually afford, and where the money keeps going back round the local economy as many times as possible.

That’s why the capped rents matter – they mean there will always be some affordable places to live and work in the town centre. As the rents rise around us and more homes disappear into AirBnB-land, we hope that the little ‘ecosystem’ of capped rents being created in this neighbourhood will help to protect its soul – often described, for want of a better word, as ‘quirky’.

The other unique thing about these buildings and the ethos behind them is ‘community self-management’ or ‘dweller control’ – tenants, investors, users and other supporters pitch in together to make them great spaces and it is seen as normal to contribute to the physical and social upkeep of the buildings and the area. That effort underpins the affordable rents but it also makes for an interesting, supportive and sustainable neighbourhood.

We are excited that Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust will be running a month-long Organisation Workshop in the Observer Building during May 2019 – a great example of how WRNV plans to work with others to squeeze this building for every possible life-changing opportunity for local people.

Here’s what we hope to be able to create within 12-18 months. We’re currently assessing the options for the lower 3 floors leisure offer, which could include lots of small scale businesses, for example a market in the souk style.

We want to create genuinely affordable housing in the building and have been talking with Heart of Hastings CLT and other organisations about creating 16 ‘Living Rents’ apartments – with rents at 1/3 of local median income (which is currently £19k pa, so rents of around £525 pcm).

And eventually, perhaps, in 8-10 years time, it might be worth building market sales housing on top in order to pay back the loans to keep the buildings sustainable and affordable in perpetuity.

What happens next in the Observer Building will depend on the enthusiasm of local people and businesses to take this opportunity to make something wonderful.

If you want to be part of it please put in an expression of interest. Or if you just want to be kept informed, join the mailing list. Please also check out the Crowdfunder. It includes a really great film by Adam Clements of Tree Tunnel and Andy Davies of Campaign Film, plus loads of wonderful rewards donated by local artists and businesses. Having maxxed out on the purchase, we need funds to help make the building waterproof and kickstart the long process of resuscitation. But more than that, these donations will show the larger funders how much people want to see this change happen. If you want to get this building open again and doing good, please make a donation, however small, and leave a message about what you want the OB to be.

 

 

*1 White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures was established by Meanwhile Space CIC and Jericho Road Solutions in 2014. One third share is currently held by the national funder Power to Change who will be handing it over to a community-based organisation in the coming months. 

*2 except for an investment bank who ended up holding the baby when the owner they had lent to turned out to be a mortgage fraudster and then the Crash happened and eventually they sent the £4.2M asset they had on their books to auction with a £150k reserve price.

 

Posted in Hastings, Self-renovating neighbourhoods | Leave a comment

Statement regarding Hastings Pier

STATEMENT FROM JESS STEELE REGARDING HASTINGS PIER

February 2019

Since last summer there has been a disturbing level of polarisation within the town about the pier. I hope that this statement will help to tackle that and remind us of the positivity that was the hallmark of the campaign to save the pier. This statement comes from me as an individual and I’d like to lay out my involvement as clearly as I can.

  • I was one of the local people who got together to try to save the pier in 2006 when it was closed for safety reasons due to lack of investment by the private owner Ravenclaw (based in Panama). We set up Friends of Hastings Pier as a community group to keep the pier in the public eye.
  • In January 2008 it became clear no-one else was going to rescue the pier so we set up Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust. HPWRT was like the ‘midwife’ to try to deliver a different future for the pier – we focused on funding, ownership, engineering, commercial propositions, and very high levels of community involvement.
  • Once we were successful with HLF funding we established Hastings Pier Charity (HPC) to take the project forward and changed the name of HPWRT to White Rock Trust to focus on the rest of the neighbourhood.
  • As the voluntary Treasurer, I played a leading role in overseeing the first phase of HLF funding – including supporting the main ‘Round 2’ bid to HLF for £11.5M, helping to raise the match-funding, working with the council to achieve the CPO, and seeing the organisation through the conversion from a charity to a charitable community benefit society so that it could raise community shares.
  • I resigned from Hastings Pier Charity in January 2014 as it seemed that everything was in place – the ownership, funds for restoration, the board and a staff team. I became just an ordinary shareholder, delighted that the pier was being restored.
  • I got on with other stuff, including the transformation of Rock House and helping to set up Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust to achieve homes and workspaces for local people that will be affordable in perpetuity.
  • I was asked by the new chair of the HPC board to get involved again briefly in 2017, in a paid role for the first and only time, mainly helping with financial modelling (it was my spreadsheets that the Administrators sent out to potential bidders). That was when it became clear that the pier operation was not financially sustainable. Faced with daunting distractions like a £1M impact storm and an underperforming private catering contract, they had lost sight of ‘Phase 2’ – the need for investment for a new building and an active programme to drive footfall and dwell-time.
  • I was not consulted about the board’s decision to put Hastings Pier Charity into administration in November 2017 – the first I heard about it was the Administrator’s letter to shareholders.
  • I was persuaded by others who had been involved in the original Friends of Hastings Pier that we should call a meeting for those who wanted to be active and constructive which we did in February 2018 – 60 people came, including Mr Gulzar. We then arranged a much bigger meeting on 23rd April with 500 people. That meeting voted that we should press forward trying to put together a bid that would satisfy the Administrators.
  • All I can say is that we tried very hard indeed, and we tried to do that in a transparent way that involved as many people as possible. It was extremely hard work from Feb to June, entirely voluntary and generally very positive – focusing on the future while learning from the past. We mobilised lots of people to be ‘active and constructive’ (a constant theme throughout). We had all-welcome ‘tea and strategy’ sessions every Friday and lots of digital input. The business plan was available online throughout the ‘bidding’ process.

I have been told that there is confusion about what we mean by a ‘community asset’. There is no formal definition but for me a community asset is a building or land that people care about, owned by a not-for-profit organisation to retain the value for local people, and enables local people to be involved in its development. That was what we were trying to achieve. [An Asset of Community Value is a different thing set up by the Localism Act (20111). These are usually owned by a private or state owner but nominated by a community group as being of community interest and therefore given some protection at disposal].

Our bid, of course, was not successful so it doesn’t make sense to spend much time on it. But I am told that there is a misinterpretation of what we were offering. Or rather that we shouldn’t complain because we didn’t make a cash offer for the purchase. Looking back it seems obvious but there was never a time when Smith & Williamson or anyone else involved gave any idea they were looking for cash. Even the estate agent didn’t push for money – he just kept refusing when we tried to negotiate for time. They stressed over and over that what they were looking for was a sustainable future for the pier that would respect the fact that it had been saved through community effort. The ‘deep pockets’ frequently mentioned referred to someone who could sustain the losses for the first few years and invest both commercially and in the maintenance of the structure.

So we focused everything on those points – financing a transition period, planning for a significant commercial investment of new covered space, and raising enough funds to keep the pier properly maintained and insured. Our business plan included detailed financial modelling and showed that with the resources pledged and projected we could achieve all of that. Business plans are notoriously unreliable, full of assumptions that might not come true. But they’re better than no plan at all.

I’m happy to be held accountable for the quality of the bid, with all its errors and its ultimate lack of success. I still think it was as good as we could do. It would have been a leap of faith for the decision-makers to choose FOHP. It was a different blind jump they made in choosing Mr Gulzar.

Another point where clarification has been requested is my views of the administration process. The Insolvency Act 1980 gives Administrators a very wide range of powers. As far as I know Smith & Williamson acted solely and legitimately within those powers. But I found it a bewildering process. There seemed to be no clear rules to it and certainly no scope for flexibility or collaboration for the sake of the pier. Nevertheless we kept going – business planning, developing a partnership, crowdfunding, leafleting, keeping people informed, and trying to keep up morale for the pier staff and volunteers for whom this was a horrible time of uncertainty.

I sincerely regret the high emotions on the night of the sale and I apologise to Mr Gulzar if he found it upsetting. I’ll give some explanation, though not as an excuse, just for information.

15th June 2018 was a very stressful day at the end of a very stressful 6 months. The previous day we had put in our ‘final offer’ (ie the most refined version of the Friends Plan for Hastings Pier, with financial information and the draft Heads of Terms for our partnership with a commercial operator). But I woke up to rumours that the pier had been sold for £35,000, later people said it was £50,000. Maybe we had all been stupid, but suddenly ‘the penny dropped’ as it were. They were looking for cash! Well, we could do that kind of cash – I picked up my company chequebook, secure in the knowledge that other people would help fund this, we could just about cover it temporarily and we were about to hit our £500,000 target on Crowdfunder.

People began to gather on the pier to find out what was going on. The place was full of media crews swapping gossip they were getting from Eastbourne. I think the word is ‘febrile’, and it was also incredibly hot. We were there all day. At 12 noon I received an email from Adam Stephens at Smith & Williamson stating that ‘no decision has been made’. We waited until 7pm and then gave up. So when I got a call at 9.30pm saying Mr Gulzar was on his way to claim his pier I was not in the best of moods! I headed back down and we invited other volunteers to join us.

Many people have criticised my attempt to buy the pier back from Mr Gulzar. They may well be right. It’s certainly a key regret in an otherwise proud story. But I couldn’t think what else to do. It felt like there was this one last thing we could try – maybe he would say, “yes you can invest that money and we can work together”. I was very tense but quite polite.

More people have criticised the boos and shouts by the small crowd of people and I agree (I think most people who were there agree) that was a bad move. Pretty quickly, but not quickly enough, I encouraged everyone to withdraw to the White Rock Hotel. I sent Mr Gulzar this email that night:

Dear Mr Gulzar
Emotions ran high tonight so we decided it was best to give you space.
As you know we are very concerned about the future of the pier and the impact on the community of this private sale. However it will be important to explore ways of working together for the benefit of Hastings Pier.
I plan to be on the pier this Sunday afternoon. Are you available to meet to discuss your plans to engage with the local community?
Best wishes
Jess (on behalf of Friends of Hastings Pier)

I have nothing at all against Mr Gulzar. He didn’t do anything wrong, just took a perfectly reasonable opportunity. From the little I know of him I think he loves the pier and is doing his best. He has certainly taken on a challenging asset. Both within FOHP and on my own behalf I have said over and over that the issue is not with Mr Gulzar as owner. The only thing that matters is the long-term protection of the pier.

My problem has always been with the decision that a private owner would be better than a community owner. The dream for Hastings Pier was that it would be in community ownership (ie owned by people who cared primarily about the pier rather than about profit) and that would be a sustainable way forward for the long term – talking 20, 30, 50 years. After just two seasons from a late opening, I don’t think it was given enough time to prove that.

I stood down from FOHP officially in front of 100 people on 2nd December 2018. Prior to that I tried to encourage mediation. We took advantage of a voluntary offer from a local resident with a strong background in negotiations to approach Mr Gulzar with suggestions about a memorandum of understanding that would serve and protect both ‘sides’. At first it seemed that might be possible but then Mr Gulzar changed his mind and wouldn’t talk anymore. I do understand that he has been very much in the spotlight. I don’t understand why he didn’t anticipate that and take action to build bridges from the start.

To be clear I don’t think anybody should be abusing anyone else involved on social media or anywhere else. For what it’s worth, I would ask anyone that has any respect for me and for what we all did together as a community in rescuing the pier from the brink of destruction to the beauty that it is today, to give Mr Gulzar the benefit of the doubt, to support the pier now and to take the long term view. As citizens of Hastings we and the generations that come after us will need to look out for that pier. As Brighton, Colwyn Bay and too many other places can testify – once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Hastings Pier is no longer my responsibility in any sense and this will be my last comment on it. As the owner, the main responsibility for the pier now lies with Mr Gulzar, but it would be unfair to let him carry all the weight. I will always support the pier, whoever owns it. Personally I have no problem at all with the gold, the animals, even the sheds and the slot machines. These are the ephemera of any particular season – they are not the essence of the pier. It has been with us for 150 years, loved by many people in the town over the generations. I hope that we can get over these nasty divisions and focus on looking after our town – the people as well as the pier.

 

Thanks for reading, please share this statement to help clarify the situation and let’s go back to being the town that saved a pier.

Jess Steele OBE, 3rd February 2019

Posted in Hastings Pier, Just Me, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A working life as a community activist

I gave this talk today (25/1/19) to 200+ students at Helenswood School, Hastings, as part of ‘Get Hastings Reading’ (see end of post for slides)

Hello, thanks for having me.

My daughter came to Helenswood. She’s doing her A-levels at Bexhill College now. So I was thinking about what I would have wanted her to hear when she was your age…

I think it’s: try to get ready for a future you can’t see yet.

My sister always wanted to be a doctor. Well at first she said she wanted to be “a nurse in Africa” but our Dad said “why be a nurse when you could be a doctor”. So that set her path. She’s done really well and been a very good family doctor down in Devon for the past 30 years.

I don’t have that kind of job, the kind you can describe in one or two words and everyone gets it. That’s always upset my Dad but I’m happy with it!

I didn’t have any specific ambition when I was at school. I was quite good at science so they encouraged me to do 3 science A levels but I absolutely loved history so I did that as well. At 16 I went on a biology field trip to a great place, stayed in a beautiful old building, and got interested in the inter-tidal zone – where you find mussels and limpets and barnacles and dog-whelks. The guy that ran the place was inspirational and I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was a bit nervous because I absolutely hate sharks but I concentrated on the limpets. I went round the country looking for unis, although really I was looking at places – at towns or cities I’d like to live in, and I fell in love with York.

After A-levels I took a year off. All set to do Biology at York the following year, I couldn’t quite bear to give up the history so I did another history A-level in my gap year, different syllabus, lots more coursework. Alongside working in various admin roles and travelling around Europe for 3 months.

When I got to York I loved university but I spent the first week cutting up lettuces and looking at them under the microscope, from 9am to 5pm. Not for me! I went begging to the Head of History to see if I could change. She looked down her nose at me and said how unusual it was but they let me change, and I never looked back.

That change of course meant I no longer had a career plan of any description. The limpets had been abandoned! I was free and I had no idea of my future.

– – –

Everything that has happened since makes a lot of sense when I look at it backwards, with hindsight, but it certainly didn’t seem clear to me back then how on earth I was going to make a living. I tried to just stay calm, keep my options open, and wait and see.

Skipping several decades (from leaving uni in 1991 to right here in front of you in 2019) I’ll tell you what I do now and then I want to highlight 4 things that made it possible.

I help community groups around the country take on challenging projects [SLIDE], especially when there is a building that people love but it’s in difficult or delinquent ownership [SLIDE]. I help them set up an organisation, get more local people involved, raise the money they need, get ownership of the building, and make it happen. I’m like their coach, to hold their hand, ask the difficult questions, get them to think stuff through, help them write funding applications. It’s about buildings, but it’s also very much about people [SLIDE]. It’s about local, but I also work with government, funders and other national bodies to make local change easier.

So I have long term coaching relationships with various groups. They pay me and I use that profit to invest in projects right here in Hastings. I love Hastings. I was very involved in saving the pier the first time around. [SLIDE] That involved a lot of campaigning, and trying to get the politicians to take action. But I always wanted to go beyond campaigning, and use my own money and skills to make real change.

That was the dream. It began to come true in 2014 when I pulled together a group of organisations to buy an empty 9-storey office block, now called Rock House [SLIDE]. Since then we have transformed it into space for living, working and community action – 6 flats and 43 little businesses, plus iRock is based there (I hope you know about iRock, fantastic service for young people), and now we’re finishing the basement to make a community kitchen and canteen.

We bought that building for £230k. We’ve spent £1M on it. It’s now worth £1.6M. In the ordinary capitalist world someone would walk away with that profit. In my world, we use that to borrow money to do the next one.

The next one is really big – the Observer Building [SLIDE]. It’s a massive concrete building with no heating or wiring or drains. It’s been empty since 1985 – nearly 35 years. What a waste! The really terrible thing is that there have been 13 different owners and all but one of them have made a profit out of it just by buying it, getting planning permission for some unrealistic scheme and selling it on. Meanwhile the building itself just deteriorates.

So we’re about to buy it. To break the cycle. To actually do something and make a difference – make it into space for leisure, jobs, homes, and a big roof garden on the top for events.

Rock House and the OB are next to each other but there is plenty more in that tiny area (MAP SLIDE). We’ve set up the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust (SLIDE) that is buying other property in the area so we can cap the rents to keep it affordable.

We’ve also bought these caves (SLIDE) and we’re hoping to make a tiny Pocket Park just outside them. And we’re doing some work to make this fantastic Alley (SLIDE) more useable.

We think of it as a little ecosystem (SLIDE) – a set of individual buildings and spaces that each have their own identity but they share a set of values. (SLIDE) They all offer space for living and working that people in Hastings can afford. The important thing is not just that individual people and families can stay and be part of the town but also that the town stays diverse and interesting. Otherwise, as the rents go up, only richer people will be able to afford to live or run a business in the town and that would narrow the range, be less diverse, less interesting and in the end would ruin the neighbourhood.

(SLIDE) I want to show that this tiny area can be a site for social change on a big scale. What we are doing is ‘darning the fabric’, not demolishing and starting again but putting the neighbourhood back together, gently but actively creating a new future for it. I am both very humble – it really is a small area – and absurdly ambitious. To change the world we have to show that the world can be changed. And an area that is just a couple of streets, and a few hundred people, can prove that in a way that sends ripples out across the world.

– – –

I’ve been thinking about the things I learned early on that made it possible for me not just to make a living out of something I’m so passionate about, but also to make a profit that I get to reinvest in projects that I love right here in Hastings:

  1. writing. I’m not a great writer, I’m not going to write a great novel or win a poetry prize, but I can get what I mean onto paper. In my world you are always trying to tell a story about how good something could be. Sometimes you have to do it very formally, like with an exam where there’s a right answer – this many jobs, this many square metres of space improved – but mostly it’s about getting ideas across in ways that catch people’s attention.
  2. speaking. I’ve always been the chatty one. When my sister came home from school my parents would say how was school, she’d say ‘fine’. When they asked me I’d tell them all about what had happened, what we’d learned, what I thought of the teachers, everything! I’ve chaired meetings, given speeches, presented to government ministers (although none as scary as you lot!). And every day my job involves explaining how important it is that we do this thing, whatever this thing is.
  3. admin. One boring summer when I was about 13 I taught myself to touch-type. And ever since then I’ve learned all kinds of useful admin skills, including spreadsheets on Excel, designing databases, planning out projects with a Gantt chart showing how long each task will take. It was admin that got me my first jobs, and then it was admin that made it possible to run every business I’ve been involved in since.
  4. numbers. If you want to be independent you have to be able to add up. Some jobs might need you to add up so that the boss makes money but for me adding up is about making sure the projects I’m involved with don’t lose money, can afford to do the ambitious things we want them to do, and maybe might actually make some money which can be invested in the next big project.

Underpinning all these things is READING. When I was your age I was reading Watership Down, Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, Jean Plaidy history novels. As well as Jackie and Smash Hits, I used to read Spare Rib which was a feminist magazine that really opened my eyes. I also took books off my mum’s shelf – she had gone to university later in life and was really into her sociology. I didn’t’ understand them but that didn’t matter! Reading is obviously really good for vocabulary – not just learning new words but getting used to seeing words you don’t know and not feeling intimidated, just curious.

More than that I think reading is where I got my values, my opinions. Books like the ones I was reading have very strong sense of right and wrong. But it’s also where you start critical thinking. You realise that what you’re reading is someone else’s version and you can try to understand where they’re coming from and decide whether you agree or not. Now of course there is the entire internet to explore but you need even more the ability to tell fake from real, to see bias, and to remember that there are two sides to every story.

You can’t see the future but I reckon there’s no single better way to get ready for the future than by reading.

And remember there are ways to earn a living that match up your skills, your interests, and the things you care about, and sometimes those are much closer to home than you might think.

Thanks for listening, and good luck!

a working life – slides

Posted in Hastings, Jericho Road Solutions, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | Leave a comment