America Ground Pow Wow!

The first America Ground Pow Wow, held on 6th October, aimed to maintain and expand a local conversation which was kicked off by White Rock Trust earlier this year to ask the questions: is gentrification happening, if so is it a problem, if so is there anything we can do about it?

This led to a project to establish a community land trust and a cross-sectoral project team is now taking this forwards. While the project team gets on with the detailed development work, the Pow Wow is a way to continue the wider dialogue with local residents, businesses and stakeholders. We talked about what we value in the neighbourhood and want to protect, what doesn’t work and we’d like to lose, and the threats and opportunities we see coming.

The notes from the event can be downloaded here: AG Pow Wow 1 notes

A set of Frequently Asked Questions about the development of the CLT can be downloaded here: Heart of Hastings CLT – FAQs



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What’s happening to Hastings?

Change is underway…

The Pier will reopen next spring. Local businesses will see footfall improve and new business are already opening up. After years in which the powers-that-be ignored our seafront in favour of ‘grade A’ offices and White Rock was just the gap between Hastings and St Leonards, now the great ‘legacy’ assets of the area (the pier, White Rock Baths, Bottle Alley, the Observer Building, Holy Trinity Church, and the White Rock Gardens) are being brought back to life. We can be proud of the passionate efforts of local people that have made this happen and excited about the prospects for our neighbourhood.

And yet… house prices are shifting fast and rents are rising. We’re facing three new waves of DFLs at the same time. Alongside those poorer families priced out of London by welfare changes, are those who can sell a flat in London and buy several houses here. Far more worrying though is the move of ‘soulless capital – speculative investors that never come to live here, just make a killing out of the ‘rent gap’ – the difference between what a landlord is receiving at the moment and what they could get with a ‘higher and better use’ or indeed no use at all, just wait while the prices rise and extract the uplift.

The America Ground is at the heart of these changes – both positive and negative. With its fascinating story of a land battle lost by the people in the 1830s, could it be the centrepiece for a new resolutions of these tensions?

We’ve seen what happens to places that get gentrified. Cheap housing and run-down edginess attracts creative types – not rich but resourceful, with plenty of ‘cultural capital’ that they invest locally, converting it into nice cafes, galleries, art-house cinemas, and all kinds of interesting events. Building on the diversity and vibrancy of the existing population, their efforts spotlight the rent gap and it begins to fill in. As prices rise, displacement begins – both of actual local residents and of the kind of people who might have come to live here in the past. When housing costs surge, the only people who can afford the neighbourhood are from a narrow band of high earners. Very few will work in the low-wage economy of Hastings – they will be commuters; shopping in M&S on the way home, buying their clothes and haircuts in London, driving out to the ‘villages’ for dinner. Business opportunities shift again – to serve affluent weekend-only customer and the old eclectic diversity is lost. It’s painfully predictable and, though some would say ‘it’ll never happen here’, that’s how it starts: the average house price in Hackney is now £686,000 and renting a flat costs on average £1,775 per month.

What can be done? No-one’s saying we can or should stop the change, but might we be able to capture the benefits and control the downside? What if we brought a small proportion of properties – both residential and commercial – into community freehold and capped rents so that there would always be affordable space in the heart of Hastings? What if we extended that by starting a Good Landlords Club with incentives for landlords to ensure stable rents and decent quality?

The America Ground Community Land Trust is being set up, with support from the White Rock Trust, to do just that. At the moment we are gathering the questions we need to ask ourselves, and we would really appreciate your help with that!

What do you think?

Come and talk about these issues and hear about the work of the community land trust at the first America Ground Quarterly Pow Wow!

Free pizza as long as you RSVP!

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Two Piers and a Lesson for Local Government

Hastings Pier

Hastings Pier

Colwyn Bay

Colwyn Bay

Spot the difference. The real difference between the circumstances – which were almost exactly four years apart – is very simple. The attitude of the council.

In Hastings it took a long time and a lot of effort to persuade our council but once we did they were an active partner. At the end of 2008 our first HLF bid was rejected – mainly because the council were “luke-warm”. By the middle of 2010 they were on board and we were meeting fortnightly to progress the project. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, knowledge of other piers, and maybe rose-tinted mourning spectacles (for Councillor Jeremy Birch who died 6/5/15), they were amazing.

When I told Hastings Borough Council officers and councillors about the Colwyn Bay situation, I said it was as if East Sussex County Council had decided to demolish Hastings Pier and were going all out to do so against the wishes of the people and elected council for the town. We were united in horror at that thought!

It seems outrageous, and it is, that Conwy County Borough Council, having spent so much effort explaining why Victoria Pier is a great asset that must be saved, won a significant HLF grant but failed to progress the project despite advice and gave the money back, then proceeded to seek consent to demolish against the expressed wish of people in Colwyn Bay.

The rules are clear. In order to get permission to demolish, CCBC must show that all other avenues have been explored. Yet they have scuppered the best possible chance of saving the pier by not providing ‘clear support’ to the HLF bid. Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust are arguing that this means Cadw should reject the demolition application and CCBC should work with the Trust and the Town Council to support them in re-submitting an HLF Major Grants application for 30 November 2015.

There is no doubt that the Trust has grown in size, confidence and capability over the past 18 months. The partnership with the Town Council is strong and complementary. HLF say the project qualified for support. Is the county council big enough to admit its mistake and try again? Or will grudges and egos win out, and Victoria Pier be lost forever?

There is a lesson here for all heritage projects. Getting the council on board is essential. It might take years of hard-slog campaigning so start straight away!

There is an even more important lesson for local government. I told CCBC that a Russian oligarch coming with a potential £10m would have been given a better welcome than local people doing the same but also with jobs and training, and promising to save the most important heritage asset in town!

Why does local government so often sneer at community input? You’re short of money and here are dedicated volunteers working to bring money in. You just have to be helpful. That includes constructive challenge, technical expertise, using your legal powers when required, and most importantly political will of the kind that Jeremy Birch showed in spades. While the reopened Hastings Pier will be a tribute to Councillor Birch (as well as many others!), it would be a great tragedy if the inadequacies of a small Welsh county borough council are allowed to dictate the fate of one of the most beautiful piers ever built. Your call, Cadw?

Posted in Hastings Pier, Piers, Seaside | Leave a comment

Colwyn Bay Pier – next in line and it needs your help

I’ve ended up knowing much more than I ever expected to about piers! I’m still no expert in any particular aspect but I’ve come to know lots of facts, lots of specialisms, and have an understanding ranging from the technical to the historical to the emotional.

And I believe that Colwyn Bay’s pier is next in line.

Our emerging vision for the new HLF bid is here.

If you can help please email

(we’re particularly looking for specialists in emerging healthy living technologies such as wellbeing apps)

Victoria Pier is one of just 31 surviving traditional (open-structure, iron-legged) piers. British Piers are incredibly popular. Together the survivors form an 11-mile stretch that has been visited by more than two-thirds of the British population in the last five years, and the same number say they want to go again in the next five. It may be a cliché to say so but we are an island nation, with more than 12,000 miles of coastline, the longest in Europe [World Resources Institute, data from US Defense Mapping Agency 1989]. The UK has a ratio of coast to area of 51.37, double that of Portugal and eight times that of Germany [World Factbook, data from CIA]. Seaside resorts – for health and leisure – are one of the most important cultural memes of the last two centuries and piers are both the symbols and the barometers of our historic relationship with that coast.


First, I’m convinced by the alignment of important factors here – three negative, three positive:

An extremely deprived neighbourhood especially within the immediate vicinity of the pier Local people wanting the pier saved and being willing to step up and work together to make that happen.
A town that has lost or in danger of losing its way with its heritage. A beautiful and very special pier, an unusual shape right in the centre of a lovely circular bay that has seen significant investment in the beach and prom.
A ‘villain’ – not Ravenclaw in this case but rather Conwy County Borough Council wanting to spend taxpayers’ money on demolition, having won £594k of HLF funds to explore viability but given it back before doing so! We have a precedent in Hastings, where the rescue is happening right now. And I’m bringing every last scrap of knowledge from that experience, from working directly with Bognor and Southsea piers, and from the People’s Piers UK network.

The town team chairman recently put forward the idea of signage ‘Colwyn Bay – Heritage Resort’, but you can’t just put a sign up and make it so! And the one thing you can’t do in a ‘heritage resort’ is wilfully demolish your greatest heritage asset.

Secondly, the project itself will make a major contribution to local regeneration. Using the heritage as foundation and inspiration, the project focuses on health, learning and prosperity. These are the three themes of the ‘Vibrant & Viable Places’. regeneration framework published by the Welsh Government in 2013. The strong rhetoric of this framework could be brought alive by the Victoria Pier project.

This is a rescue not just for the pier but for the people of North Wales (and everywhere that places suffer under garbage regen strategies, or brilliant rhetoric with no follow-through, or with implementation that’s obsessed with money – with who gets £12m and who gets £13.5m and who gets left out). The only way to stop this cycle of poor practice is to support projects that inspire a different approach. Projects that are led from the ground – with specialist support and peer (pier-to-pier) networking.

Thirdly, this one matters because Colwyn Bay, like Hastings, will prove a fundamental point about community-led heritage regeneration: that it can over-compensate for the effort and risks involved by generating a super-abundance of benefits. The change in Hastings is profound. A town with a self-esteem problem has become confident; everyone is watching with excitement and pride; businesses are investing; properties are being spruced up; and the powerful stakeholders who were previously ignoring the seafront are now fully focused on its future. Even more importantly, everyone now knows that it’s possible, and that changes everything.

Of course the skills, expertise and other resources that will be required must be identified and developed. We are honest about the need to develop the partnership, demonstrate community support, and build capacity, credibility and confidence. We are equally clear that this is how these things work – that these resources do not spring up fully-formed; they need to be nurtured and grown.

That’s why we’ve written a community organiser into the heart of the project. The CO will play the more traditional role of ‘volunteer coordinator’ but in a new way that engages widely and systematically, and supports local people to take action for themselves. The Community Organiser will be out and about while, back at base on the pier, the Health & Learning Manager will help convert that interest into exciting opportunities for training, work, enterprise, volunteering, education, leisure and entertainment.

Of course if we were only considering rarity and physical vulnerability, Birnbeck Pier should really be next. But when it comes to heritage regeneration, it is essential to take into account community drive, loyalty and leadership. People and businesses in Colwyn Bay have proved that they care about the pier and are willing to step up to the challenge in order to protect their heritage. Colwyn Bay could be the Welsh version of Hastings and no less important for that. It is not only a Welsh asset but also one for the UK, with ready access from huge populations in the North West and West Midlands as well as further afield.

Right now Victoria Pier needs your help, and fast! We are submitting a new HLF major grant application for the annual deadline on 30th November 2014. An overview of the emerging vision is here.

We’re looking for partners, advisers, and investors of all kinds. If you work in heritage, health, fitness, beauty, education, enterprise, engineering, architecture, social investment, community engagement, or any other field that could be relevant to Victoria Pier, please get in touch – And spread the word…. Thank you.

Victoria Pier aerial copy

Posted in Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Seaside | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Developer Stress

My favourite definition of an entrepreneur is someone who sets out to do something without controlling the resources to do it.

I’ve been an entrepreneur a long time. Since my dad got me to write a history of Deptford in the early 1990s and I realised I didn’t want to send it off to some publisher for it to come back covered in someone else’s red marks, so instead we set up a publishing company. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing (the file from those times is still on my shelves and it’s called ‘the mysterious world of publishing’). But I learned quick, and because I was never a professional I always questioned and was always up for a new approach – a good thing during the publishing transformation of the 1990s. My first book was typeset on an old Atari games computer using adapted German software by the fabulous Peter Hill of Community Desktop Publishing. It was followed by 19 other books, each a technological step ahead of the last. And the publishing business was followed by 19 other enterprises (including a community newspaper, creative outreach charity, childcare nursery, heritage & environment consultancy, financial management for voluntary organisations).

I also know a fair amount about buildings. I make a living from helping neighbourhood groups all over the country take on challenging buildings. In Deptford I intervened with buildings from an old library to Victorian underground toilets; I was Heritage Officer in Croydon; at Locality I supported dozens of asset transfers; for Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust I spent 7 years inside the most complicated asset development project of recent years. Jericho Road clients include:

  • two old hospitals
  • three piers and a lido
  • a theatre and a cinema, a pub and an old town hall
  • the Seething Wells filter beds
  • and some long-blighted housing in Liverpool.

So although my focus areas, honed over the years, are organisational readiness, funding and building community support, given the client base I couldn’t help but learn a few things about buildings.

My driving passion is the control of gentrification. I believe that community freehold ownership – pepper-potted through a neighbourhood – has the potential to capture the benefits of gentrification and tackle its horrors by locking in affordability to create a mixed community in perpetuity. In many places it is too late, in a few it is too early. In Hastings and especially in the White Rock area, we are JUST IN TIME.

But now, for the sake of this dream, I’m actually trying to be a developer with a real and actual building and OMG it’s hard. I finally understand why they might deserve a reasonable profit at the end of it all!

Jericho Road, Meanwhile Space and White Rock Trust have come together as White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures and bought a nine-storey office block in Hastings.

Alley pic

More than half empty and increasingly scruffy, we were apprehensive about the end of the 25-year lease that was keeping it at least well-maintained internally. It also ‘happens to be’ next door to the Observer Building (which we tried to buy).

Observer facade Cambridge Road

So we didn’t get that one. But we have brought Rock House into social ownership with the written-in potential to transfer into full community ownership. The idea is to convert it to 4 floors residential, 4 floors creative workspace, with a community club-space on the top floor and roof terrace.

It all made sense to buy the building. Then the difficult stuff begins!

Over the coming months I’ll try to document this process. Right now it feels like the big issues/lessons are:

CAPITAL – we need some truly engaged and/or truly patient investors. What we find instead is all kinds of programmes designed by funders for their own purposes. They mean well but they design topsy-turvy processes – inside-out and top-down, blind and deaf but noisy. Who will bring some proper investment specifically for this building in this neighbourhood because the value proposition is so bleeding obvious?

FIND FUNKY – I’m so happy that the lovely Kate Renwick has moved in to develop the Hastings Arts School. We need a ‘wow’; most developers would buy an architect or an interior designer for that. We’ve got Kate – who appeared out of nowhere (out of the network, of course) just at the perfect moment, and will be the curator for the building, working with local and other artists to achieve the decoration of the communal areas – lift, stairs, vitrine gallery, 6th floor.

FIRE SAFETY & OTHER RULES. I just found out today that we can’t have non-residential uses above the residential which basically screws the idea we’ve been developing all along of a community clubspace on the top floor and roof terrace. It’s infuriating – blanket risk analysis leads to the idea that mixed use is ‘difficult’ and the only way to do it is new-build. It’s no wonder we don’t revitalise and so much ‘regeneration’ is actually renewal through destruction. I know from my work on ‘community assets in difficult ownership’ that the Rules are trammelled by vested interests, bureaucracy and fear of risk.

But, you know what, I’m an optimist and a problem-solver. So the top floor will start as the residents’ lounge and we’ll return more strongly to the original vision of a co-housing project. Ours is co-habitation because it also includes the creative enterprises throughout the building. And we’ll keep trying to find ways to make sure that the  from the top of Rock House belong to everyone…

IMG_3160 IMG_3157

Posted in Hastings, Jericho Road Solutions, Meanwhile, Self-renovating neighbourhoods | 5 Comments

Ground Control?

White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures – a partnership of White Rock Trust, Meanwhile Space and Jericho Road Solutions – now owns the 9-storey office block at 49-51 Cambridge Road, Hastings, currently known as Rothermere House. The building has been more than half empty for years and the 25-year lease held by Grand Metropolitan expires at the end of September.

We plan to convert four floors to residential co-housing, four floors to creative workspace and the top floor and roof terrace into community clubspace (to be managed initially by White Rock Trust and defined over time as ideas emerge).

Alley pic

The first Viscount Rothermere was a nazi sympathiser, the current Lord Rothermere is the chairman of the Daily Mail. The building needs a new name to go with its exciting new start.

My idea – and I hope it will be popular because I really like it – is GROUND CONTROL.

  1. it was built in 1969, year of the Moon Landings and David Bowie’s mesmerising ‘Space Oddity’ (which the BBC used as the theme music for its lunar coverage)
  2. it denotes community control of land and buildings – which is what’s going on here. White Rock Trust is a ‘midwife’ for big local projects – that’s what we did with Hastings Pier – sorting out the money and the ownership and setting up Hastings Pier Charity to take it forwards. The joint venture agreement allows for White Rock Trust to buy out the other partners if that’s what its members decide, or simply to remain a partner and able to influence on behalf of local people and businesses.
  3. If the Pier is the heart and White Rock Gardens the lungs, this could be the nerve centre for the White Rock neighbourhood.
  4. it gives us a theme for the décor! Which would go nicely with the hollow-pot ceiling that will be revealed when we strip out the suspended ceiling tiles.

Just imagine living at Flat 2 Ground Control, 49-51 Cambridge Road, Hastings TN34 1DT, having First Floor Ground Control as your business address, or watching the sunset over the south downs from the roof terrace at Ground Control…

What do you think?

Posted in Hastings, Jericho Road Solutions, Meanwhile, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Roller-coaster week

It’s been a roller-coaster week here in Hastings.

Since handing over the pier project to Hastings Pier Charity, the White Rock Trust has been focusing on the wider neighbourhood and on the second most challenging building in town – the old Observer Building.


We found out a week ago that the Observer Building was to go to auction this Friday (today!) and we have been trying to negotiate a private purchase in advance of that.

Last week we asked the receiver what it would cost to take it out of auction and on Monday we matched that offer, including a 10% deposit within 3 days. They came back and said they wanted 20% deposit – we managed to raise that as a gift from Jericho Road Solutions and Meanwhile Space CIC (who are buying Rothermere House next door).  If they had accepted this we would have to raise the rest of the money by September. If we failed, the gift from Jericho Road and Meanwhile Space would be lost. We had talked to funders and lenders to make sure there was a chance they could make the decision in time.

We thought we might have really good news on Monday night, but it was hanging in the balance. And then again on Wednesday afternoon things were looking up when we could have been in a position to bid up to £350k at auction. But when we checked the auction site it said ‘SOLD PRIOR’. We have been working flat out, but I’m sad to report that the Observer Building was sold to a private buyer for £320,000 prior to the auction.

Of course, a genuine fairy godmother might have arrived in town… it’s just not that likely.

The Observer Building has been empty for 30
years. It’s had 12 owners and as many planning permissions. The last owner is in prison for money-laundering; the bank lent too much money on it; the receiver is waiting for his fee. Last year it went through auction again and a new ‘owner’ emerged, only to disappear (losing his deposit) when it became clear how much work needs doing.

Just like the pier, there are no commercial-only solutions. It needs grant to make it commercially viable, and that means community ownership, or at least real community involvement. And as with the pier, the White Rock Trust will not give up. Didn’t we win an award for ‘dogged persistence’?!

I want to thank everyone who has been working so hard this week – especially Keith Sadler, Mark Curry, Ed Lofts, Ray Chapman, Laura Gales, Fiona Ambrose, Lorna Lloyd, and Ronan Larvor, as well as Jeremy Birch and Hastings Borough Council for their support. And also apologise to everyone at Steve Wyler’s leaving do who asked how I was and got the whole story as a rant! It’s not over, and you will all be needed again! We look forward to meeting the buyer, who is expected to complete the purchase within 20 business days.


Posted in Hastings, Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Seaside, Self-renovating neighbourhoods | 9 Comments