Changing Hastings: a packed house with a quiver full of great ideas.
In the summer of 2019 we found ourselves in a small pub, The Dripping Well near Rock House (Hastings Town Centre), in a meeting talking about Gentrifcation. This meeting brought a range of people, from community activists, local media people, academics and some random interested people to talk about putting on event to gather views from the community on changes, broadly thought to correlate with the process of Gentrification. After a series of meeting in the Summer and Autumn the meeting was arranged and promoted for late November in the Hastings Angling Club. This is what happened.
First, a confession. I was wrong.
As probably the most pessimistic member of the Changing Hastings organising group, at least when it comes to our meeting turnout, I reckoned that few of our fellow citizens would bother to leave home on a cold, wet winters evening a month before Christmas for a public meeting about gentrification.
I also imagined that those that did come along would be the ‘usual suspects’, the professional meetings attenders and embittered activist types who never miss an opportunity to spout their dogma and impose stock pre-digested solutions while bemoaning the loss of the town’s identity and fantasising about a shared poverty-stricken past through rose tinted shades.
Imagine my surprise, then, on arriving at the Angling Association Clubhouse in the heart of the Old Town last Thursday evening to find people queuing to get in and, having eventually squeezed through the inner doors, an expectant packed bar of residents keen to explore ways we can work together to retain the singular charms of our sometimes battered, but always characterful, coastal hometown.
And what a refreshingly diverse crowd we turned out to be. Old, young, rich, poor, hipster, square, here forever or Down-from-London, Across-from-Brighton or recently Left- Lewes types. All human life was here, and the sense of interest and excitement in the hall was as palpable as that of young children huddled around the tree on Christmas morning. Goodness, even the BBC had turned up to record the evening for posterity.
So, what happened next?
Put most simply, we had a bit of a community natter. As an organising team, we were always keen to avoid yet another worthy, well-intentioned top-down meeting or panel discussion led by the great and the good, preferring to schedule something more grounded and engaging that saw the bulk of the evening given over to lively, participative conversations on what to do about the changes going on around us.
In practical terms, this meant keeping speeches to a bare minimum. After a specially commissioned film and a satirical song, Jess Steele, serial campaigner and the closest the town has to a patron saint of community enterprise, said a few choice words about it being early enough in the gentrification cycle to learn some of the lessons from elsewhere to avoid its worst excesses, Sam Kinch from the Heart of Hastings team talked about housing trends and my colleague, James Prentice and I, wearing our Coastal Action researcher hats, gave a potted history of gentrification and trawled through some recent facts and figures outlining population change and baseline economic metrics from here in Hastings.
What this means, in headline terms, is that many more people are arriving from London and Brighton, a fair number of them creatives with university degrees and higher skill levels able to reap the rewards of our cheaper house prices and way better bangs for their buck compared to where they live now. This feeds into the visible signs of renewal in a number of hitherto run-down neighbourhoods, alongside the growth of a niche retail, restaurant and service sector, at the same time that overall deprivation remains stubbornly embedded, to the extent that the town has risen from 20th to 13th place in the nation’s poverty league table whilst all this has been going on. Despite all the media hype about hipster Hastings, impressions that we are in some kind of boomtown by the sea are somewhat off the mark, our feeling being that, while there is a veritable buzz in the air, the town still evidences a very mixed scorecard, with evidence of increasing divides.
At this point, the hall split into a series of table- based discussions on a range of specific topics such as airbandb, second homes, and rising rents. This was a process designed for an anticipated audience of 50, but on the night had to cope with a tally three times that modest total. Which is why this section creaked a little under the sheer weight of numbers.
The logistics might have been hard, but the positive energy certainly flowed. I had the task of facilitating two ‘wild card’ discussion groups where any relevant topic could be raised and pretty much everything was, ideas coming in fast and furious from a fantastically diverse set of clued- up residents. From reviving youth projects, support for students, encouragement for businesses to relocate in Hastings, the return of a university after Brighton’s shameful exit after less than a decade, and lots more decent, well-designed and genuinely affordable new housing for rent, the suggestions just kept coming and I didn’t stop scribbling all evening. They’ll get properly written up and shared in in due course but at this point, a few days on, my three main reflections are on how well a set of people who in the main didn’t know each other collaborated at very short notice and without much need for help, the generosity of spirit towards the town, and each other, given the very different backgrounds in the room; and the textured and mature approach towards local change. We had virtually none of the cliché tub-thumping I thought might bog things down, and the group conversations benefited from an appreciably more nuanced approach that openly acknowledged local improvement where it had happened while wanting to maintain the range and breadth of our population that was widely seen as giving the town its distinctive spirit and character.
As the two hours rumbled to a close, and the murmur of our mini self-selecting citizens assembly gave way to the sweet tunes of our house reggae band, Mighty Sounds, an integral part of a night that was defiantly planned as not just another meeting, there was no escaping the feeling that Changing Hastings had hit the right note and caught the imagination of the town. There’s momentum here and I’m confident that many of us will meet again to work up some of our good ideas into projects that do just what it says on the tin. Namely, Change Hastings for the better.
Keep watching this space.