Hastings Pier – where our hearts are

Pier 2007 cropped.jpg

After 19 crazy weeks of community mobilisation, commercial negotiation, late night bid-writing, endless spreadsheets, obsessive Crowdfunder checking, and the hard, hard work of keeping hope alive… this is me trying to make sense of what has happened, what has been achieved and the impact of our failure to protect something so precious that it makes grown-ups cry.

I didn’t want to do any of this. When I heard that Hastings Pier Charity had gone into Administration in November 2017 I felt physically sick. A phone call with the Administrator in December sent me into a furious depression I haven’t experienced for 20 years. I couldn’t do any work, I couldn’t even bear to go into my office at home. I walked the dog a lot.

In the woods Scuffle and I would often meet Lesley with her dog Nicky. Was she stalking me?! Whatever, she managed to persuade me we had to do something. And then Vidhya at Power to Change said they’d help with a grant. So we arranged the first meeting on 3rd Feb 2018. We tried to get participation from the Administrators, HLF and other funders. When they refused we decided to go ahead with a small and informal meeting for people who wanted to be active and constructive.

That set the tone we have maintained throughout – we look forwards not backwards, we rise to the challenge, we adapt as necessary but maintain core principles that came from that first meeting and were voted on by 500 people at the public meeting on 23rd April.

  1. People get a say in what happens next
  2. The community’s asset should not be sold off into private hands
  3. A partnership approach to ownership and operation is the way forward 
  4. Good results are underpinned by good governance
  5. The Pier should remain a space that everyone can enjoy and take pride in

We mobilised every possible resource available to a small, eccentric town on the south coast. The response from the town has been phenomenal. Our collaborators list was already impressive by the time we submitted our first Friends Plan for Hastings Pier on 12th April; it has grown since. We have developed and adapted all kinds of processes and tools for coordination, transparency, connectivity, and we’ve done that at a incredible speed. None of that could have happened without a core team with astounding commitment and complementary skills. That core was constantly growing, a swirl of purposeful activity, drawing in new people, creating something bigger than the sum of the parts. Of course it hasn’t been anything like perfect, but it’s been generally good-natured

Alongside that local energy, I’d like to pay special tribute to some of the amazing people who have come from outside and fallen for Hastings and the People’s Pier.

  • Alex de Rijke (dRMM)
  • Chris Brown (Igloo Regeneration)
  • David Alcock (Anthony Collins Solicitors)
  • Tony McKinlay (Towercrest Enterprises)
  • Vidhya Alakeson and Ged Devlin (Power to Change)
  • Michael Collins (Leisure Development Partners)
  • Hugh Rolo (Locality)

These are all very clever, successful people, highly respected within their own sectors (and much admired by me). Each in their own way pulled out all the stops for us, going way beyond any normal commercial relationship, because as we all know Hastings Pier is not a normal commercial proposition.

Our Proposals

While all our plans have been available online as they developed, the final proposal that we put to the Administrators is not, because it contains genuinely confidential commercial information. In brief, it was a co-investing shared venture between FOHP Trust and a commercial operator, backed with £750k of guaranteed finance, alongside current funding bids or approaches from funders totalling £450k, with dRMM contributing £60-90k of design work, plus a comprehensive funding search by an Institute of Fundraisers expert showing we could ‘absolutely’ raise £1.6M capital to achieve and open a permanent building within 3 years. We could start straight away – dRMM had pulled an all-nighter for us and designed a beautiful but simple and cheap temporary structure.

In terms of operational capacity not only were we committed to working with the current team of staff and volunteers who have done so much to make this season a success so far, but our operator partner would bring in additional expertise and experienced staff to fill gaps and cope with a step-change in visitor numbers. The first thing we promised to do was actually count footfall – there is literally no data about how many people have been on the pier, let alone intelligence about who they were or what they thought.

Our approach, of course, made a full and undoubted commitment to prioritise maintenance and to sustain the in-house engineering team which holds the crucial ‘corporate memory’ of the pier.

To top all that, yesterday afternoon we offered to pay a purchase price of £55k. Without seeing the plans of others none of us can be categorically sure that it was the best option but it set a pretty high bar…

The ‘process’ of the pier’s disposal

There were three really terrible things about the approach taken:

  1. First and foremost it was just inappropriate. It is wrong to use a commercial administration process for a civic/community asset, applying private property sector ‘solutions’ to a civic problem that the community is capable and willing to solve for itself given half a chance. I hope that @PeoplesBiz and @LocalityNews will help to campaign for a Community Administration Act or an amendment to the Cooperatives & Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 to establish a more suitable process for when a community asset faces financial difficulties.
  1. The behaviour around timescales to develop proposals – not just ours but other bidders too – was almost designed to exclude good options and to waste a lot of people’s valuable time. They would never give us a deadline date or an honest description of the decision-making process, it was all just estate agent hyper-stress(hurry, hurry, or you’ll lose it, imminent decision, can’t wait, no you can’t have 6 months/3 months/6 weeks/30 days etc). Procurement rules can be annoying but they are in place to create fairness and clarity to everyone involved – nothing like that in this process.
  1. There was an absence of governance and engagement from all the places we might have expected better. Appearing numerous times this week in the Guardian (and rather sweetly also the Epsom Guardian), the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Express (even more sweetly also the Aberdeen Evening Express!), I think we can safely say this Pier is of interest to everyone across political and cultural divides. I have said it before: this is a totemic asset, meaning it belongs to everyone and everyone belongs to it.

Yet our politicians have been absent, the Foreshore Trust impotent and, most egregiously, the Heritage Lottery Fund, in pole position as the only secured creditor, have hidden behind the Administrators, too scared of judicial review perhaps to institute a fair, open and engaging process that could achieve the best possible future for an asset of acknowledged national heritage and architectural significance. They have all missed an opportunity to connect with and support voters, taxpayers, and lottery players, and to harness the energy of local people to solve local challenges.

Despite all these horrors, this process has had plenty of wonderful moments and outcomes – new and renewed friendships, hundreds of civic conversations, a new database of people who care about the pier, and an emerging solidarity among grassroots communities across the country.

What next?

We are taking a few days to reflect and re-group. An update has gone out on the Crowdfunder and to our mailing list. At least five possible next steps present themselves.

  1. CHALLENGE. We think they made the wrong decision and we think they made the decision wrongly. Lots of people ask ‘is it legal?’. We know that commercial Administrators have very wide-ranging powers, but nevertheless the disposal process will come under intense scrutiny.
  1. PROTECTION. Immediately re-list the Pier as an Asset of Community Value. Work to beef up the pathetic 2-year ‘reversion clause’. Ask the council to seek an annual repairs report to be submitted to the Borough Engineer in recognition of the risk to them if it gets into trouble again. Keep 4,000 beady eyes on it.
  1. PIER RESERVE FUND. Establish a community-held fund, actively invested and topped up with new grants, donations and bequests, to help it grow over the years so that it is always ready in the event of an opportunity to bring the pier back into community ownership.
  1. THE PIER IN EXILE. One really exciting thing has been the people and businesses that have come to the fore, both passionate locals and supportive outsiders. We will find ways to keep that energy going this summer and beyond.
  1. A COMMUNITY ADMINISTRATION ACT. We will be looking for a suitable MP who will put forward a Private Members Bill to lay out a better process for the situation where a community asset is at stake and/or the organisation is a community benefit society.

* * *

Personally I need to get some sleep and then try to start earning a living again. I do that mainly by helping community groups all over the country to take on challenging buildings that people love. Many of these projects involve Heritage Lottery Fund. I can only hope that my comments above will be taken not as an attack but as a frustrated cry of pain and a plea to learn lessons. We have so much to be grateful to HLF for, both in Hastings and across the UK. It is an immensely important piece of public infrastructure, which is why it must be held to account when communities feel it is hurting rather than helping them.

In 2016 I was awarded an OBE for services to community assets. I’ve always said that medal was for all of us who stand up to be counted, disregarding the snipers and the nay-sayers, taking a risk on hope. I’ve had hundreds of messages today from people across Hastings and across the country. You all say nice things but I do this because I can’t not. In the middle of the week someone admired my perseverance but said I was ‘pushing water uphill’. I listened politely and then said “as a specialist in pushing water uphill, I’ll carry on doing just that”. The question is not why I’m mad enough to do it but rather why does it have to be so bloody hard? When will we ‘exalt the valleys and make low the hills and mountains’? When is change coming if we don’t make it ourselves?

This tragic fiasco is not just about Hastings Pier, any more than the HLF renovation funding or the Stirling Prize was. This has always been about economics and power. And particularly the power or otherwise of local communities to manage, expand and protect their own local wealth.

The two Battles for Hastings Pier (2006-13 and 2017-18) stand in deadly stark contrast to each other. In one a very active community was eventually empowered by public funds to achieve the renovation of a derelict structure. In the other, the fully-restored asset was removed secretly from 5,000 shareholder-owners and then subjected to a commercial process that led, unfathomably, to where we are now.

A final thought…

Abid Gulzar made an interesting point last night. He waved at the pier and said ‘it’s not going anywhere’. He was right; the pier is a ‘tethered’ asset – it will always be Hastings.  I spoke to Alex de Rijke from dRMM earlier. While horrified by the injustice of the process and sad at its outcome, he’s relaxed about the pier itself – “it will survive Mr Gulzar and have another life after”.

Goodnight.

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