The People’s Piers

I was taken aback by the level of interest in the Bank Holiday launch of my Coops UK Fresh Ideas pamphlet ‘The People’s Piers’. Given the coverage – Guardian, Times, Mirror, Daily Mail, BBC News, ITN, etc – I should have put more care into clarifying the argument and also made sure I was in the country to explain it better.

The pamphlet tells the story of Hastings Pier – which opened 141 years earlier, on Britain’s first ever Bank Holiday in 1872 – and of the long community campaign leading at last to its transfer from the shadowy Panamanian-registered Ravenclaw, via Hastings Borough Council, to the dedicated Hastings Pier Charity.

I argue that community ownership can be a solution for other piers. However, I am certainly not suggesting that all piers should be forcibly transferred. Each of the 58 surviving British piers has its own unique story and situation. As Gavin Henderson, president of National Piers Society (NPS), said on Radio 4: there are a small number at the top in good ownership and thriving; there are some horror stories at the bottom that desperately need solutions; and there are the majority in the middle being run by public or private owners who try as best they can. My argument is that all those in desperate need should consider community ownership as an option, and that the line between getting by and neglect is a thin one, easily rubbed out by fire, storm, or a string of bad luck.

I do not believe the standard property market works well for these majestic but immensely challenging structures. Piers spend too much time in the hands of people and organisations who have neither the will nor the resources to make them work. There’s always another speculative optimist round the corner – many have the best of intentions, though there are also some gangsters who just get the cash rolling off the deck and are ready to walk away when the substructure begins to buckle. Sadly, public authorities still tend to see ‘the private sector’ as a risk-free answer and ‘the community’ as trouble. My involvement in Hastings Pier has always aimed to challenge that – not just to save the pier but to show that community solutions are viable and when it comes to the really difficult but important buildings, they may be the only option.

Most of all I want to encourage local people to stand up to irresponsible ownership that risks the buildings they care about, and to stop accepting the idea that there is nothing we can do. The majority of property owners are responsible but there are many shades of delinquency – from abandonment to illegal uses, from the dangerous aloofness of the pension funds to the progressive demolition that starts with ‘taking the roof off for repairs’.

The first time I saw the anti-squatting tactic of concrete down the toilets (22 years ago in a gorgeous but pillaged building at 221 New Cross Road) I felt sick with anger. A couple of years later I watched men with pneumatic drills destroying the scrolled detail on the roof of a riverside warehouse to avoid a heritage listing. Another historic Deptford asset, Lady Florence House on Arklow Road, was transformed by a group of good-squatters into a vibrant party-space with workshops in the day, until the council called in the bailiffs, sold it for £80k (of which £60k had to be returned to central government), the windows were breeze-blocked and it’s been used for storage ever since. It is still beautiful and sad today, while the owner holds out for silly money. My own baptism of fire into community action focused on the lovely Old Town Library – languishing in the early 1990s with Lewisham’s other historic libraries on the Disposals List, arsoned, flooded, bad-squatted and spoiled; then rescued by local people who transformed it with love and sweat into a youth and community centre. Eighteen months later at the planning committee meeting to decide its fate three councillors sat with their backs to the 80-strong audience and their exhibition of photos and memories, and voted 2:1 in favour of demolition. I cried.

Our response then was to set up Magpie Community Planning Resource Library – so that we could be active citizens, better informed, and then maybe we wouldn’t lose so many of these battles. I still believe that knowledge is power, but it’s not enough on its own. Indeed Magpie quickly developed to focus on creative outreach, and my own faith has been increasingly in community organising to build power based on numbers rather than righteousness (though it’s best to have both!).

Community action – hard and slow and unpredictable as it is – is the right answer. But it must be matched and supported by some effort from an enabling state. Councils have a range of powers to deal with derelict buildings but in far too many cases they don’t have the resources and capacity to use them. Is the answer to carve out more resources to pay for the hoop-jumping? Maybe, in a high-public spending era (although sometimes the resource that’s missing is backbone rather than money). Instead I think we should look at the powers themselves. Part of the problem is that they are all legalistic which means information and decisions about them rest with the borough solicitor or outsourced legal firm. The questions are not about what is right or possible but about the risk of legal challenge. Another issue is that legal powers are not finely distinguished – so the same ‘solution’ has to be stretched to fit across utterly different scenarios. And perhaps the biggest problem is that the powers are all held and exercised (or not) by local authorities rather than shared among stakeholders. So local residents and businesses expect the council to deal with these problems and then berate it for failing, when in fact they can only ever be solved through active partnership and bold steps taken together.

Hastings BC has built a well-deserved reputation for grot-busting, is blazing a trail for compulsory purchase of HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) to create family housing, and has its hard-won but well-worth-it experience of the pier CPO. But the 28-year ordeal of the Observer Building continues – passed from one greedy, irresponsible owner to the next and now stuck on a bank balance sheet at a ridiculous price. It will take all our collective efforts against the odds to unlock it from limbo… and we could really do with the threat of compulsory community transfer to oil the wheels.

* * *

To return to the piers pamphlet… the NPS has responded with some valid criticism (NPS_response_to_Co-operatives_UK_report_on_seaside_piers). I should not have said “those [piers] in public ownership tended to be unimaginative and dull”. This was a broad characterisation of a spectrum from safe-and-dull to dynamic-and-vulnerable to make the point that piers need ownership that balances the 100-year horizon with next season’s excitement. Nonetheless I’m not convinced by the NPS statement on public ownership “thus one in every three piers has an assured future”; where councils are struggling to provide social services they will find it harder than ever to justify pier maintenance.

I love the phrase “the NPS considers it impertinent to try to interfere in the running of commercial enterprises”. Piers are scarce, historic resources – an 11 mile stretch visited by more than two-thirds of the population (what else comes near that?). Just like motoring or smoking, property ownership rights must be tempered by social responsibility. If it is impertinent to say so, then we must be impertinent!

NPS are right to stress “the huge task that the newly created Hastings Pier Charity has set itself” and the “considerable commercial acumen” that will be required. They are well aware that the ‘enthusiasts’ who mobilised public opinion and won an unprecedented lottery grant also recruited a superb CEO with highly relevant experience and now oversee a team of specialists in engineering, project management and education. Community ownership does not mean doing it all ourselves.

So… we can agree that piers are all different, all important, all in need of good responsible ownership, dynamic management and community support. And that the extensive media coverage of August Bank Holiday 2013 was a useful trigger for the ongoing debate about their future. The People’s Piers UK (the emerging peer network that was discussed with NPS) will promote community solutions as a valid option and will encourage ‘impertinence’ whenever it is necessary to protect these totemic assets.


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