“The Great Society is not a resting place… a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us towards a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvellous products of our labor.” – Lindon Johnson
Not a ‘finished work’ – no, certainly it isn’t. I have been telling the story of the Battle for Hastings Pier for many years. Since November 2012 when the Heritage Lottery Fund said YES! I have been telling it as a fairy-tale come true, a success against the odds.
Two things occur to me now:
1. It’s not over. Not even to the extent that we can leave it in the extremely capable hands of our chief executive and his newly-recruited team. Because ‘these things are sent to try us’:
a) Funder processes are *not* designed for the benefit of the project (which after all is the point of them) but for their own purposes – risk management, standardisation, funder PR, ‘your problem not ours’ rules that say even if no-one else is willing to quote you still have to get three quotes, delay, delay, delay. And – not Hasting Pier specific – but my experience everywhere: making sure it’s our August ruined by application deadlines not theirs by assessment deadlines; ‘application forms’ in pdf that have to be printed out and completed by hand; no-one that can provide funds in less than 6-8 weeks (note that the Meanwhile Project used to make a decision in one day if urgent, a week if less so!).
b) Tenders never seem to come in as the QS said they would. That’s completely unfair! I bet 90% of them do, but the few that don’t can be very troublesome indeed. So it looks like we won’t be able to start by demolishing the fire-twisted debris that scars the pier but instead the people of Hastings will have to wait until the restoration works reach that far. No matter – we’re adaptable and we’ll put up with a lot as long as something starts soon.
c) Who knew?! To finalise the Compulsory Purchase Order the council’s lawyer has to have evidence that notices have been served on every single delinquent interest that crawls out of the woodwork. Now there’s apparently a Panamanian bank that holds some kind of mortgage interest on our pier. And the Royal Mail is having some difficulty knocking on their door! It will all get resolved in the end, no doubt. But why should communities suffer these indignities because the law forces us all to bow and scrape before the property rights of the dodgiest of landowners and their financial conduits? We need a Compulsory Transfer Order to sit alongside Compulsory Purchase (which was designed to protect Mr Smith’s house from the motorway extension) and be used in situations where landowners are demonstrably irresponsible with important assets.
2. There’s always another challenge. Funnily enough (and whatever I’ve told you over the last 7 years), the Great Society is not achieved only by the rescue of Hastings Pier… so while I travel the country supporting local residents to sort stuff out where they live, back home we’ve moved straight onto the next local challenge! The Observer Building and its immediate neighbourhood. One of the six really challenging assets in Hastings (Pier, Observer, White Rock Baths, St Mary in the Castle, House of Hastings, Palace Court). Local people will rightly say there are more, but these are the ones in my cross-hairs.
a) The amazing thing about the Observer is where and how it sits in the town. Dug deep into the White Rock cliffside, it is four storeys high where it presents a carved façade onto Cambridge Road, three fading to two as it looks out onto hilly Prospect Place, and a glorious seven where it opens up at the base of the Brassey Steps into an alleyway that could be part of Melbourne’s funky laneways but right now is dominated by pigeons (vermin).
b) This dense, mixed neighbourhood with its failed commercial heart is endlessly fascinating. Every time you turn round there’s another exemplar of something weird, wonderful or just plain wrong. Why is someone charging £1000 a year for people to carry their bins over ‘his’ land down the back of an unadopted alley? Why has multi-national, multi-billion pound corporation Diageo had a 15-year lease on a significant building under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budget yet played so little role in getting anything worthwhile to happen there? How can a family who have transformed the old Printworks into the trendiest place in town get so little support and encouragement from the powers-that-be?
c) What I find really interesting is to test out the Community Rights here. I have a feeling it could actually work! We want to save a very special building – we have nominated it as an Asset of Community Value. We want to self-define the vision for this little neighbourhood, so long ignored, so utterly top-downed that it occupies less than a quarter of the lowest level of ‘Local Plan’ consideration (Area 8), so full of regenerative potential, so determined to make change but not to be gentrified, to keep the uplift local. Can we make a Neighbourhood Plan?
I want to be fair to our council – under ridiculous pressure, spliced up, gutted, struggling, facing the consequences of some of the worst welfare decisions ever made – they do care and they are open to ideas. I always said the problem that we would experience with local government cuts was the abolition of the gate-keepers without the taking down of the gates. This was entertainingly illustrated when a colleague and I got stuck in the council offices yesterday because there was literally no-one to let us out!
When we realise that the Great Society – in LBJ’s words – is not a finished work and does not belong to ‘them’, we can really get going…! I’m looking forward to it.