Two Piers and a Lesson for Local Government

Hastings Pier

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?