Staff, tenants and trustees of Hastings Commons. Image: Jonny Thompson
We all know what happens when a coal mine shuts up shop and the industry leaves a town. The closure of the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer newspaper was the same for the residents of Hastings, on the east Sussex coast. Nothing replaced it, or the 800 jobs that vanished with it. Since the lights went off in 1984, the old seven-storey Observer building spanning 4,000 square metres had largely lain empty.
Over 30 years the dormant structure had changed hands a dozen times. All but one had made money from it, typically by gaining planning permission to inflate the value and then selling it on. The building was doing nothing for the community, but generating returns for investors. What if that could change?
Ravaged by fire and sitting derelict, Hastings Pier had fallen a long way from its 1930s heyday. As the 21st century got into gear it was, like the Observer building, a blunt symbol of what had gone wrong for the town. But in 2013, Steele helped raise £14m to bring the pier into the hands of local residents and restore it, and get it open again.
“That wasn’t going to be solved by the state or the market, so in the end local people had to deal with it,” she says, in a textbook demonstration of how community ownership can revitalise local neighbourhoods and businesses.
Next was Rock House, an office block a stone’s throw from the pier and its surrounding pebble beach. Steele and her group turned it into six rent-capped flats, costing no more than a third of the median local income. This, in 2014, was the start of a mission to turn empty buildings into affordable flats and places to work, transforming the face of their town. It was the birth of what’s now known as Hastings Commons.
“The only power we had is to purchase, to acquire, and then protect,” she says.
In practical terms, Hastings Commons buys up “tricky buildings”, which will eventually be transferred to a community land trust. These include Rock House, a former taxi office, garages and some old caves. In time, they even got their hands on the Observer building.
Together they form a cluster of converted homes and workspaces in the White Rock area of the town. Hastings Commons want to get hold of the buildings for the longest time possible – preferably freehold, or leases of around 100 years.
Currently, it spans workspaces and 12 homes, with planning permission for a further 15 flats. The unique buildings may not be suitable for wholesale conversion but will have life breathed into them as mixed-use properties. Rock House, for example, is home to six flats and 42 workspaces.
Demand is strong — perhaps unsurprisingly — when one of these flats becomes available. Those who apply are assessed against four criteria. First is need, whether that’s housing need or a need for an affordable workspace. Then there’s local connection – Steele mentions people coming down from London as a key driver of Hastings’ gentrification and rising prices. Next is enthusiasm for the ethos – somebody must actually like the idea of community. And finally, contribution – being willing to contribute something beyond paying rent.
“Hastings is a wonderful place, and the reason it’s wonderful is because it’s very diverse income-wise. It’s got lots of different people, and that’s because people can afford to be there. And that’s what we were trying to protect,” says Steele.
When a neighbourhood is down on its luck, there are two ways money can be made from it: dereliction or gentrification. The more rundown somewhere is, the more money there is to be made. You simply can’t lose as a developer.
The dynamic plays out in gambling shops taking over historic properties in down-at-heel market towns, as The Big Issue reported in Boston, then boasting that they are the only way to bring jobs.
But it’s a “false choice that all neighbourhoods get offered”, says Steele, “between ‘you’ve got to gentrify’ or ‘you’re going to stay shit, you’re going to get worse, you’re going to decline’.”
So Hastings Commons is showing the alternative: not just homes, but places to work. The area has fostered a different kind of ethos, where it’s normal to know your neighbours and to socialise with them. In a “public living room”, members of the community have begun to stage their own events and groups. You might think it’s a desperate situation that what Steele is describing sounds like a utopian paradise.
“Isn’t that crazy? That’s what I always think, is that it’s all motherhood and apple pie, but then you put it up against the systems that we work within, and you realise it’s incredibly radical and disruptive.
“But actually, we’re just talking about people being nice to each other, looking out for each other, being neighbourly in a very easy going way.”
At the core is the importance of ownership. It’s easy enough for, say, artists to move to an area when things are cheap, put down roots and enjoy the place, only to get kicked out when prices rise and landlords want more money.
“It happens every time. We shouldn’t be blind to it. You have to do something about it, which means you have to get organised,” she says.
“People store their power in these spaces, and if we want community power we need to own some of our space. We used to think we did, because the councils owned so much of it. But look what’s happened. The councils have sold off huge swathes of our public inheritance.”
Key to reversing that change is raising money. Steele has raised £28 million since 2014, through more than 100 different funding awards from 50 different funders as diverse as the European Union, the Co-Op Foundation and the National Lottery.
One of those funding partners is Big Issue Invest (BII), the social investment arm of the Big Issue, which helped Hastings Commons convert two floors of Rock House into flats, and has provided ongoing support for projects.
“The flexibility and ongoing support shown by BII has helped throughout our developments,” says Steele.
For those worried about empty homes in their community, there are lessons in the quiet revolution on the Sussex seafront. You don’t just need to look at empty flats or houses, says Steele. “Think more laterally about lots more different kinds of buildings”, she says.
And what’s more, these can be good: “We’re trying to show on the ground, in real time: it doesn’t have to be the way they’re telling you it has to be.” Do you work with a social enterprise looking for investment to make the next step? Or are you an investor keen to support social enterprises to grow? Find out how Big Issue Invest can help at BigIssue.com/invest