Observer column: 09 May 2016
A pier re-born from the dreams of many
On a grey April morning, the gates of Hastings Pier were swung open and the public admitted for the first time in eight years. As a conclusion to all the work of so many people, it was a quiet event. But it marked a new beginning.
The battle to save Hastings Pier began in earnest when Jess Steele set up the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust in 2008. The campaign gathered momentum, supported by the Hastings Observer, and when Jeremy Birch became leader of the council again in 2010, he and I met Jess to tell her that we intended to serve a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on Ravenclaw, the absentee company that owned the pier.
There followed a seemingly impossible set of challenges. The Pier Trust started to assemble a Heritage Lottery bid, which could not succeed unless they owned the pier. The council began the compulsory purchase of the pier, which could not succeed without the Heritage Lottery money. Some of the events that followed were bizarre and almost farcical, such as employing solicitors in Panama to serve notices on a company that probably didn't exist. But somehow, the council and Pier Trust managed to tie it all together. The CPO was approved in September 2012, with the Heritage Lottery grant announced a couple of months later.
And it was a big grant - over £12m in the end, giving a total of over £14m, including grants from Hastings Council, various other funders, and a community share offer. But it needed to be - the pier was in poor condition, and was in ruins after the 2010 fire. Restoration was a massive, expensive task. And the Lottery grant covered only the restoration of the pier structure, and a visitor centre. It did not pay for buildings on the pier. Heritage Lottery funds restoration, not new build.
And so the newly appointed chief executive, Simon Opie, assembled a team to do the job. They aimed to build a pier that would last, to the highest specification, with steel that would remain strong for many decades before corrosion weakened it, and hardwood decking that wouldn't rot for a hundred years. And now, after an incredibly complex construction project involving 3,000 tonnes of steel, 51 miles of hardwood, and 150,000 hours of specialist labour, it's finished, and visitors can enjoy this magnificent, elegant structure once again.
There are many heroes in this - the pier trustees who stuck with their dream, the team that made it happen, the council staff who saw through the CPO, and the many volunteers who gave their time because they believed in it. But special thanks should go to Jess, whose dream it was, to Simon, for making the dream come true, and to the late Jeremy Birch, for having the courage to lend the council's backing to the dream.
There will be a formal ceremony to 'officially' open the pier on May 21st. Then the next stage begins: the pier must become a viable business. Piers are not cheap to run, those beautiful wide open spaces will have to be used to generate the income needed to make the pier sustainable. So we have in Hastings a new cultural icon, a symbol of our town's regeneration: a pier for the 21st century. We need to make sure it's also a pier for the 22nd century, and beyond.