A Great Leap Forwards

Contracts have been exchanged for the purchase of the Observer Building in Hastings. Completion is expected on Weds 13th Feb 2019. 

The new owner is White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures (WRNV) (*1), a community-rooted developer owned by three socially-driven organisations, with voluntary covenants in the Shareholders Agreement to retain capped rents in perpetuity.

Sounds really dull! Why does this matter?

The Observer Building is a symbol of early 1920s optimism: a great big beautiful strong proclamatory edifice built out of pride to tell the stories of the town. Hard not to like…

On the other hand, Robert Tressell’s name for the local paper ‘The Obscurer’, reminds us that the extraordinary FJ Parsons empire in the America Ground area of Hastings was by no means politically or socially neutral.

But it was definitely lively and important – 500 jobs at its height and a position of real power and responsibility in an age where the local paper was pretty much the only source of local news.

Now here we are in 2019. The building has been empty and increasingly derelict for 34 years (bar the memorable 1-year meanwhile use in 2016). Far from being ‘unproductive’, however, it has made a profit (sic) for almost every owner over the years (*2). Buy cheap, get planning permission, sell on. Perfectly normal way to make a profit. Make almost no effort to protect or improve the building. Shame but the value just isn’t there. The globally-connected flows of capital that sweep in and out of places with no regard shown or expected towards any purely local interest.  That’s just the way the world is now.

But it’s not ok and it doesn’t have to be like this. It is possible to change things. Maybe you have to play some games – jump in, do the deal, climb out, wash off. But then, with freehold ownership, you can do what you want. And what we want is a sustainable asset that provides jobs, homes, leisure, opportunities and comfort to the people of Hastings. At a cost they can actually afford, and where the money keeps going back round the local economy as many times as possible.

That’s why the capped rents matter – they mean there will always be some affordable places to live and work in the town centre. As the rents rise around us and more homes disappear into AirBnB-land, we hope that the little ‘ecosystem’ of capped rents being created in this neighbourhood will help to protect its soul – often described, for want of a better word, as ‘quirky’.

The other unique thing about these buildings and the ethos behind them is ‘community self-management’ or ‘dweller control’ – tenants, investors, users and other supporters pitch in together to make them great spaces and it is seen as normal to contribute to the physical and social upkeep of the buildings and the area. That effort underpins the affordable rents but it also makes for an interesting, supportive and sustainable neighbourhood.

We are excited that Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust will be running a month-long Organisation Workshop in the Observer Building during May 2019 – a great example of how WRNV plans to work with others to squeeze this building for every possible life-changing opportunity for local people.

Here’s what we hope to be able to create within 12-18 months. We’re currently assessing the options for the lower 3 floors leisure offer, which could include lots of small scale businesses, for example a market in the souk style.

We want to create genuinely affordable housing in the building and have been talking with Heart of Hastings CLT and other organisations about creating 16 ‘Living Rents’ apartments – with rents at 1/3 of local median income (which is currently £19k pa, so rents of around £525 pcm).

And eventually, perhaps, in 8-10 years time, it might be worth building market sales housing on top in order to pay back the loans to keep the buildings sustainable and affordable in perpetuity.

What happens next in the Observer Building will depend on the enthusiasm of local people and businesses to take this opportunity to make something wonderful.

If you want to be part of it please put in an expression of interest. Or if you just want to be kept informed, join the mailing list. Please also check out the Crowdfunder. It includes a really great film by Adam Clements of Tree Tunnel and Andy Davies of Campaign Film, plus loads of wonderful rewards donated by local artists and businesses. Having maxxed out on the purchase, we need funds to help make the building waterproof and kickstart the long process of resuscitation. But more than that, these donations will show the larger funders how much people want to see this change happen. If you want to get this building open again and doing good, please make a donation, however small, and leave a message about what you want the OB to be.



*1 White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures was established by Meanwhile Space CIC and Jericho Road Solutions in 2014. One third share is currently held by the national funder Power to Change who will be handing it over to a community-based organisation in the coming months. 

*2 except for an investment bank who ended up holding the baby when the owner they had lent to turned out to be a mortgage fraudster and then the Crash happened and eventually they sent the £4.2M asset they had on their books to auction with a £150k reserve price.


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