Observer column: 03 November 2017
This week, dRMM architects won the prestigious Stirling Prize for architecture, for their design for Hastings Pier, attracting national and international attention to Hastings for all the right reasons. But it's been a long journey, from an unsafe and abandoned structure owned by an irresponsible offshore company to a fully restored pier recognised as the best 'new' building of the year.
After various attempts by owners to restore it, Hastings Pier was sold to millionaire Ian Stewart in 2000 and then Panamanian-based company Ravenclaw in 2004. They made some cosmetic improvements, but did nothing to address the pier's serious structural problems, and it closed in 2006. After attempts to patch up the structure and open parts of it, it finally closed permanently in 2008. The Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust (HPWRT) was set up to save it, involving the local community in a bid to do what seemed to be the impossible - acquire, restore and re-open the pier.
The day after the local elections in 2010, the late Jeremy Birch as newly elected council leader and I as lead member for regeneration met with Jess Steel of HPWRT to tell her that we intended to go ahead with the compulsory purchase of the pier. So HPWRT could begin a major Heritage Lottery Fund ('HLF') application.
What followed was complicated and protracted. At the heart of the process was a paradox: the compulsory purchase order couldn't be approved unless funding was secured to restore the pier. And the funding couldn't be approved unless HPWRT owned the pier. So these two lengthy and unrelated complex processes had to be perfectly synchronised, to make sure both came to fruition at the same time.
Then there was the fire, in October 2010. But what seemed like a disaster at the time was not as bad as first thought. The original Victorian structure had not been damaged. So HPWRT pressed on with their project with a HLF development grant, appointing Simon Opie as chief executive to run the project, raising money through a community share offer and sponsored planks, pressing ahead with the Heritage Lottery and other funding applications, and appointing dRMM as their architects.
The council continued with the compulsory purchase, but this was fraught with problems, dealing with a Panamanian company for whom no details other than a PO box were available. Whilst Ravenclaw could not be contacted, we still had to go through the ritual of serving compulsory purchase papers in Panama on a company that didn't really exist. Eventually, the CPO was approved by the Secretary of State in September 2012, ownership passed to HPWRT, and the full HLF grant eventually approved for the £14.2m restoration project.
A project of this size and complexity is never straightforward, and there were setbacks, including further severe storm damage - fortunately after the pier was fully insured. But Hastings Pier finally re-opened on 27 April 2016.
So it's been quite a journey. Hastings Council invested over a million pounds in the project, funding the compulsory purchase, legal fees, security and clearance after the fire, and direct grants to match-fund HLF money. But the real heroes here were the HPWRT, later to become the Pier Trust, and its hundreds of local backers and supporters who never lost faith in the ability of this remarkable town to achieve the impossible. Hastings Pier really is The People's Pier, and the people of Hastings have every right to be proud of their achievement.
Council Leader's column