Does Hastings have what it takes to be a UNESCO world heritage site?
Hastings is at the centre of a richly historic area, with a heritage of enormous potential, worthy of conservation.
The first harbour development proposal might have been withdrawn but there is still a threat of a revised development coming forward and no sign of any lessons learnt by the council. Alongside this are the plans for the town centre and White Rock areas, which, while potentially exciting, have wide ranging implications for the future development of our town.
Imagine standing on the West Hill by Hastings Castle, looking east to the fossil-rich cliffs of Rock-a-Nore and the sea below, the East Hill with its evidence of occupation since the iron ages and before, across the medieval old town, then down to the fishing beach from where boats have launched for centuries. This is an outlook that embraces a great treasure trove of history in its widest sense.
As we value it, we must work hard to preserve this view. A bid for UNESCO World Heritage status could provide global recognition of the history and culture of Hastings for generations to come, and unite people in a shared vision for the town.
Heritage does not have to mean preserving a place in aspic. It is about a lively sense of our past and how to integrate that into the future of our town. Working within a historic context is not a constraint but an opportunity – where the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, and where contemporary building can add a rich new layer and play a role in creating the heritage of the future.
There is a large body of expertise in Hastings. Groups such as Old Hastings Preservation Society, Friends of Hastings Country Park, and the History and Geological Society have offered support for the UNESCO proposal. But to take the idea further will require a huge investment of energy and money – as well as time. Chatham dockyards, which initiated their bid eight years ago, are still on the UK government’s Tentative List and have not yet been put forward for UNESCO status.
On the positive side, in conversations with some of the members of the team behind the bid for Chatham dockyards, we heard that the nomination process helped to galvanise people’s interest in their local heritage. Over 1,000 people have participated in the Chatham bid so far. It also tightened the local planning framework. Early on they were strongly advised to introduce a new planning policy document to protect views to and from the proposed site. It brought funding to the town and united potentially conflicting groups in pursuit of a common goal.
A quick look at the current list of UNESCO sites in the UK shows other categories that might be valuable for Hastings to consider. For example Brighton and Lewes Downs are a UNESCO World Biosphere region defined as, ‘a special place that serves as an international demonstration area for sustainability.’ Global Geoparks such as the one in Torquay are ‘areas of exceptional geological significance which use their geology to drive community development.’
If you are inspired by this idea then come along to the discussion at 6pm on October 19. The open meeting will be held at the Brighton University Priory Quarter building, Priory Street, Hastings, TN34 1EA. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a place.
The first step toward making a bid for World Heritage status would be to put together a volunteer steering group. This group would look at the feasibility of the idea and come up with a strategic overview of the key heritage and landscape assets of the town as a whole. This would be useful in itself. At present the town has many different conservation areas but little sense of joined-up thinking or overall management of our heritage assets.
The group would also need to work out what the benefits of World Heritage status would be. Strong local authority support is vital.
The Hastings Heritage Report, commissioned by Hastings Borough Council in 2017, has this to say about us and our town:
“…Hastings is at the very heart of a richly historic area, and… its heritage has enormous unrealised potential. These characteristics and many more give the town and its people their distinct sense of identity – a fierce affection for their physical and cultural heritage, combined with a strong independent, sometimes anti-authoritarian streak, which sits uncomfortably with, for example, planning control or the kind of unthreatening, tidy-minded conformity associated with more conventional tourist destinations. This personality is reflected in its physical fabric, unkempt, but authentic, full of unexpected surprises, hidden corners and dramatic views… .”
So get your thinking caps on and work out whether and how the Stade and Rock-a-Nore can demonstrate ‘outstanding universal value’. Remember, that means its significance has to extend beyond local and national worth: the site has to be valuable to the global community. That is the clincher for any nomination for World Heritage Status.