Observer column: 23 September 2016
There was a lot going on in Hastings last weekend: the council's Seafood and Wine Festival, the official opening of 'The Landing' metal sculpture on the beach, a talk by the playwright and ROOT 1066 patron David Hare, the premiere of the 'Edith' film, a talk by internationally acclaimed artist Huw Locke, a talk by photographer John Cole at the Stade Hall and the opening of his exhibition, and three days of live music on the pier. Much of this was part of the ROOT 1066 creative arts festival, with many more events planned. Some of these will be big and spectacular, from a new Glyndebourne opera to small events involving schools and local children in the most deprived parts of town. And this builds on all the other events that are well established in Hastings, including Jack-in-the-Green, carnival, Fat Tuesday, the Piano Concerto Competition, the international Composers Festival, and many more.
So what's the point of all this? Firstly, it's because Hastings is still a resort town, and the tourism sector needs visitors - more events means more visitors. Secondly, it's for local people, to enjoy the varied events and activities. But most of all, this is about 'cultural regeneration': using the creative and cultural sector as a platform for economic regeneration. That's partly about attracting those working in the creative sector to Hastings, working artists as well as those running small creative businesses. But it's also about changing the image of Hastings, to attract more employers here across all sectors.
There can be little doubt that the image of Hastings projected nationally and internationally is changing, with positive press coverage now far outweighing negative stories. That's partly about the regeneration of the seafront, the town's 'shop window', and all the improvements there. But it's also about what's going on, this cultural programme. And it's having an effect. The council's 97 industrial units, ranging from large factories to small starter units, are now fully let. We are also building a new unit, to be occupied by BD Foods - that's created 50 new jobs, already recruited. And the council is purchasing another large plot of land, so we can build more units.
Office accommodation has been slower to let, with an oversupply across the South East. Nevertheless, the Priory Quarter development in the town centre has created several hundred new jobs, and with renewed interest in this development, will hopefully be fully let soon.
But we're not there yet. We must never forget that parts of our town remain amongst the most deprived in the whole country. And we're told by commercial property owners that national retailers in particular still have a negative impression of Hastings, although that changes when they visit. No doubt, this applies to other employers too.
So we'll keep working to improve our image, and getting positive press coverage, by pursuing our strategy of cultural regeneration. We're talking to the Arts Council about what funding might be available for a 'legacy' programme to follow the ROOT 1066 festival. With the council facing still more cuts to the grant it receives from central government, it's not going to be easy. But we will do all we can to ensure that the image of Hastings continues to improve, and becomes ever more recognised as the fantastic, creative and special place that it is.
Council Leader's column