Analysis: Community mobilises to rebuild Hastings Pier

The local landmark was destroyed by storm damage and fire, but a group of residents and businesses have raised funds to have it restored. Andy Hillier reports

A vision of the future for Hastings Pier
A vision of the future for Hastings Pier

Hastings Pier was opened in 1872 and flourished in the seaside tourism boom during Queen Victoria's reign. In later years, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd all played there.

But the pier fell into disrepair during the 1990s because of storm damage and neglect, and it was deemed unsafe and finally closed to the public in 2008.

What has happened since the pier's closure shows how effective and successful community groups can be if they are persistent and are prepared to adapt, in this case going as far as altering their legal status and ceasing to operate as a charity in order to give thousands of local people a stake in the running of the pier.

The fight to save the pier was taken up in 2006 by the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust, a pressure group made up of local residents and businesses. By 2010, the group had persuaded Hastings Borough Council to issue a compulsory purchase order to buy the pier from Ravenclaw Investments, the owner. But plans to restore the pier were delayed in October 2010 when a fire destroyed the upper structure.

Instead of abandoning its restoration plan, the group pressed ahead after a feasibility study concluded that much of the main cast iron and steel skeleton remained sound. In November 2012, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded Hastings Pier a grant of £11.4m towards the cost of restoring the pier.

But the process of securing the pier and the money has not been straightforward. Simon Opie, chief executive of the Hastings Pier Charity, which replaced the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust in managing the National Lottery-funded restoration in 2013, says the fact that Ravenclaw was based in Panama posed challenges to the compulsory purchase. The council was willing to make the purchase only when the Hastings Pier Charity had a commitment that funding would be in place.

The organisation has also had to carefully consider its own legal structure. In 2011, it registered as a charity, but last year it took the bold step of becoming the first charity to deregister and become a community benefit society with exempt charity status – a move made possible by the Charities Act 2011.

"Having a broadly disbursed shareholding membership was always part of the plan," says Opie. "We started to look at an arrangement where the registered charity owned the pier and an industrial and provident society operated it, but that was complicated. It seemed less disadvantageous to have one single organisation."

Last year, HPC also launched a community share issue to raise an additional £500,000 required to finish the building work and buy essential equipment such as deckchairs. Shares were offered in packages of between £100 and £20,000. Opie says the share issue, which closed last April, proved to be more popular than expected, raising about £580,000 from more than 3,000 investors.

Work is well under way on the restoration and the pier is due to open next summer. Opie says that for the pier to be financially viable, it will need to attract at least 330,000 visitors a year, with each of them spending an average of £4.

One lesson Opie believes other community organisations can draw from HPC's experience is the willingness to change their organisational structure.

"We have refined our model to suit the various phases of the project," he says. "The model we have is the right one for the future. The Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust was an effective pressure group, but now we are having to set up an organisation that is capable of operating the pier."

The total cost of the restoration is expected to be about £14m, but Opie believes the investment is justified. "The pier could not have been left as a huge ruin in a prominent place on the sea front," he says. "There wasn't a do-nothing option. It could have been demolished, but that would have cost several million pounds; so we think it's better to rebuild."

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