What’s happening to Hastings?

Change is underway…

The Pier will reopen next spring. Local businesses will see footfall improve and new business are already opening up. After years in which the powers-that-be ignored our seafront in favour of ‘grade A’ offices and White Rock was just the gap between Hastings and St Leonards, now the great ‘legacy’ assets of the area (the pier, White Rock Baths, Bottle Alley, the Observer Building, Holy Trinity Church, and the White Rock Gardens) are being brought back to life. We can be proud of the passionate efforts of local people that have made this happen and excited about the prospects for our neighbourhood.

And yet… house prices are shifting fast and rents are rising. We’re facing three new waves of DFLs at the same time. Alongside those poorer families priced out of London by welfare changes, are those who can sell a flat in London and buy several houses here. Far more worrying though is the move of ‘soulless capital – speculative investors that never come to live here, just make a killing out of the ‘rent gap’ – the difference between what a landlord is receiving at the moment and what they could get with a ‘higher and better use’ or indeed no use at all, just wait while the prices rise and extract the uplift.

The America Ground is at the heart of these changes – both positive and negative. With its fascinating story of a land battle lost by the people in the 1830s, could it be the centrepiece for a new resolutions of these tensions?

We’ve seen what happens to places that get gentrified. Cheap housing and run-down edginess attracts creative types – not rich but resourceful, with plenty of ‘cultural capital’ that they invest locally, converting it into nice cafes, galleries, art-house cinemas, and all kinds of interesting events. Building on the diversity and vibrancy of the existing population, their efforts spotlight the rent gap and it begins to fill in. As prices rise, displacement begins – both of actual local residents and of the kind of people who might have come to live here in the past. When housing costs surge, the only people who can afford the neighbourhood are from a narrow band of high earners. Very few will work in the low-wage economy of Hastings – they will be commuters; shopping in M&S on the way home, buying their clothes and haircuts in London, driving out to the ‘villages’ for dinner. Business opportunities shift again – to serve affluent weekend-only customer and the old eclectic diversity is lost. It’s painfully predictable and, though some would say ‘it’ll never happen here’, that’s how it starts: the average house price in Hackney is now £686,000 and renting a flat costs on average £1,775 per month.

What can be done? No-one’s saying we can or should stop the change, but might we be able to capture the benefits and control the downside? What if we brought a small proportion of properties – both residential and commercial – into community freehold and capped rents so that there would always be affordable space in the heart of Hastings? What if we extended that by starting a Good Landlords Club with incentives for landlords to ensure stable rents and decent quality?

The America Ground Community Land Trust is being set up, with support from the White Rock Trust, to do just that. At the moment we are gathering the questions we need to ask ourselves, and we would really appreciate your help with that!

What do you think?

Come and talk about these issues and hear about the work of the community land trust at the first America Ground Quarterly Pow Wow!

Free pizza as long as you RSVP!