Stories as Community Action

Pier Campaign – story version

Last week a couple of trustees of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust were filmed for a BBC piece to be shown in the autumn which may turn into a longer documentary. It felt like we were auditioning to see if the story, and our telling of it, was up to scratch. There’s no doubt it’s a great story but is it a fable, a thriller or a soap opera? If you live inside it then it feels more like a soap – an endless series of multi-perspective tales. When you’re presenting to the world it has to be told quick. And that’s when the lessons get reduced and concentrated, so you have to make sure the right message takes hold.

I was struck by how much the presenters wanted to simplify our story to pre- and post-Fire. That’s tempting because the Fire in October 2010 was clearly a major threshold point (and highly photogenic). But a) it’s not true, and b) it’s not helpful. The story as I tell it from the perspective of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust goes like this:

The pier is owned by Ravenclaw – the villain of the piece – a delinquent owner registered in Panama to avoid English law. They took a £1.8m mortgage from an Irish bank, made a load of cash on the top and failed to put it back in underneath. In 2006 the Council’s engineer was doing his regular inspection and a great big piece of metal came off in his hands! He ran back to the town hall crying “we must close the pier!”. And so it began.

A range of court cases got underway – most of which I managed to ignore – but they had far less long-term effect than a public meeting held in November where 200 people crammed in, with more waiting outside, and it was clear that there was the community will to save the pier. It was already clear that the local authority was not about to solve the problem and we rapidly realised that there was also no chance of a private sector solution. The only option was entrepreneurial community ownership. Sadly it took several years for the council to catch up – they were waiting for a fairy godmother; they’d give anything for a sugar daddy with wads of cash and preferably a knighthood.

So from that first public meeting in 2006 until deep into 2009 we were patronised and politely ignored. It is not enough to be right. That summer we decided to ‘up the ante’. It was time to focus on what we needed – a compulsory purchase – and get political in order to win. The Battle for Hastings Pier began when 2,000 people marched from the pier to the town hall to present a massive, gift-wrapped copy of the Manual for Compulsory Purchase. A crucial by-election saw us lead a ‘Vote Pier’ campaign, including systematic listening to local people about their concerns and a carefully stage-managed question time event by the end of which all three candidates leaped up to sign the Pier Pledge. As the votes came in, this safe Tory seat suddenly wasn’t safe anymore, and with the election of May 2010 on the horizon, Hastings Pier had at last become an issue that politicians could not ignore. Within days we were meeting with councillors in the town hall and, after a little face-saving, the council became an ‘active partner’ in January 2010. Since then every single pier vote in the council chamber has been unanimously agreed across all parties. The Tory MP and the Labour council leader will both claim equal credit!

On the evening of 4th October 2010 I was driving down the seafront, admiring the pier as the sun set beautifully behind it, on my way to a meeting at which we agreed to go out to EU-wide tender for our architects. Our lottery bid – to restore the structure closest to the land and use the buildings there to make money that would slowly restore the rest – was well underway and things were looking good.

By 2am I was back, watching with horror as a small fire at the pier head spread inexorably towards the land, with the Fire Service impotently spraying from the sidelines because of the dangerous condition of the pier after the years of neglect. We watched all night as our plans turned to smoke. With 90% of the buildings gone there was no chance of ‘progressive commercialisation’. But, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, the “YOU CAN SAVE ME” banner survived and by the dawn of that tearful, grey, burnt-asbestos morning we had decided on a new strategy. Seven weeks later we submitted our completely revised HLF bid. It’s been a long slog since, but we now have a total of £14 million lined up and the ownership is about to transfer from Ravenclaw, via the Council, to the Hastings Pier Charity. HPWRT has played its midwife role – sorted the politics, sorted the money, sorted the ownership – and is about to start on a new project – the second most challenging building in town!

So, yes the Fire was a turning point ,and yes it changed what we will do. The outpouring of emotion – both sadness and anger, the sense that a daughter of the town had not just died but been raped and left in a ditch – certainly raised the profile and fed our ‘Everyone loves the Pier’ campaign. So when HLF trustees came on an assessment visit, the town was plastered with ‘Just Say Yes’ posters. A pier is a barometer of the health of a seaside town – a dead pier is the equivalent of rotting fish in the chimney – it cannot be allowed. Fires also inevitably feed Phoenix pep talk, and optimism is oxygen for community action.

The ‘clearing of the decks’ that the Fire enabled made our long-held aspiration for a 21st century pleasure pier less complex. But it was not the Fire that made the rescue possible. If it had been that would be a depressing lesson for other challenges and other communities. Instead it was the dogged persistence of local people who refused to give up but were always willing to adapt.

“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance; yonder palace was raised by single stones, yet you see its height and spaciousness.” Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)

The narrative matters, both in the heat of battle and in the retelling. Right now in Rio, people are changing the narrative. “Demonstrations in Brazil are usually left to small groups belonging to beleaguered ‘social movements’ and therefore easily ignored… By focusing discussion on problems of transport and infrastructure, protesters are forcing politicians to face difficult questions about how they manage the city” (Damian Platt, Guardian 22/6/13). They can no longer simply blame the poor or ‘global financial crisis’ but must deal with their own role in the problem. That sharp focus is at the heart of community organising. The ‘ordinary people’ who led the recent successful campaign to save the bus service from Sheffield to Rotherham, would not take ‘austerity’ for an answer. With the support of two community organisers, they channelled the resource that all communities have – people and stories – to force a rethink by those with the power to make decisions. Power is very resilient and resistant to change – sometimes they will use tear gas and water cannons. More often in this country it’s bureaucracy and the simple tactic of ‘waiting it out’. When the narrative is right and we are capable of waiting them out (dogged persistence), change comes. Then the stories don’t just describe community action, sometimes they are community action.

I’ve just come back from Derry-Londonderry (LegenDerry as they’re calling it now), where they know full well that stories can be lethal or healing. And I’m about to set off for the annual CO Action Camp (a gathering of Community Organisers, their hosts & employers, and the local leaders they are working with). I’m story-harvesting…

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One Response to Stories as Community Action

  1. Fascinating and brilliant piece Jess, an inspiration to all of us (with or without piers) who are slogging away to build resilence and drive real change in our communities. I hope that between us all, and our myriad approaches, we will edge our society and economy towards a tipping point in favour of a world we can pass on with pride to future generations, from which there will be no coming back.

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