In the early 14th century Great Yarmouth was the 5th most affluent place in England. Despite losing 2/3rds of its population in the Black Death, once the harbour was properly dredged in the 16th century the town boomed for four centuries, including as a busy seaside resort since 1760. Now it’s the 5th most deprived place in England. The fishing industry all but died in the 1960s, some wards have 25% unemployment, some streets have 50% of residents out of work.
I spent the day with Stephen Earl, a most unusual conservation officer and Chris Skinner an even more unusual Head of Legal Services. Between them they have directly saved dozens of buildings. At any one time, Chris is doing 12-15% of all the compulsory purchase orders (CPO) underway in England. He says “I’m a great enthusiast for CPO – it can deal effectively with problems once and for all.” He thinks that the typical local authority fear of CPO is like having a toolkit without a hammer. Chris trades his expertise to other councils and I was delighted to hear he is coming to Hastings in a couple of weeks. Also glad to hear his estimate of CPO costs as ranging from a few thousand for easy ones to around £40k for those that need a public inquiry. Hastings council have set aside £200k but the large law firm they hired scared us all by estimating costs of £200-250k not including any compensation. Let’s hope Chris can guide us to some savings…
In his role for the council Stephen runs the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, which has five councillors on the board yet is certainly one of the most entrepreneurial I have come across. We visited the wonderful Aspire – a project for homeless young people run by the Benjamin Foundation with 17 flats plus support, learning and education in a rescued listed building previously empty and derelict for 15 years. And Time & Tide – an equally wonderful but very different project, a museum of Great Yarmouth life in a former herring curing plant. Stephen bought the building for £54k from a Panamanian-registered company based in Athens who had acquired it in payment of a debt when a rotten fish incident bankrupted the previous firm. It’s typical of Stephen that he went ahead with the purchase even though it needed a £1m of restoration. You just gotta do it! With his experience of knitting together multiple funding streams and his ability to work in partnership to overcome (or go round) all hurdles, he made it happen and it’s now a successful attraction that explicitly feeds local pride.
Before heading for the sea, I visited the DTA member, Great Yarmouth Community Trust who also have an historic building – the grade I listed Priory where Cromwell stabled his horses (on the first floor?!). It was used as a school for a long time and a ‘rationalisation’ led to it passing to the county council and falling into dereliction. Bought and partially refurbished by Sure Start, GYCT now run it for a multitude of community services including a children’s centre, health, older people’s services, and pre-employment work, as well as hiring out meeting spaces. With 112 staff GYCT is one off the larger development trusts so I wanted to know how CEO Andrew Forrest views the future. I was pleased to hear he is optimistic. “Certainly the times are uncertain and scary, but we deliver good quality and excellent value for money – there’s got to be new opportunities for organisations like that.”
By the time I made it to the seafront, Daughter was crashing from the sugar-rushes and DH was losing patience with the intensity of ‘amusements’. Yarmouth’s ‘Golden Mile’ has two piers, 12 amusement arcades and a suite of gorgeous seaside entertainment architecture punctuating the emphemera of burger bars and inflatables. The very high quality of the paving and street furniture show the council’s commitment, but the recent withdrawal of funds allocated to the beautiful Winter Gardens (and thereby the loss of match-funding from English Heritage) is a great shame. With Stephen leaving his post at the end of September we have to hope that the remaining members of his team will pick up the baton.
The piers themselves are strange because they hardly get their feet wet. Heavily developed at their front ends they use the sea as back-drop rather than raison d’etre. The ‘sublime quality’ of Hastings under-pier is here lost under plasticised concrete. While the Britannia Pier looks like a massive cowshed, everything about the Wellington Pier is neat and clean and built for profit. The materials used include creased steel pop-riveted together – the modern shopping centre look that makes sense to open purses and minimise maintenance but does nothing to lift the heart. Inside, the ‘Family Entertainment Centre’ makes me vow never to use that term for our Hastings aspirations. If ‘family entertainment’ means a row of screens where three generations can watch each other gambling, we need to think again.
A weekend rest with sister & b’law includes leisurely trips to Sheringham and Wells. Off to Cromer on Monday morning…