The woman who many see as the saviour of Hastings Pier has spoken out about what she sees as ‘the disturbing level of polarisation’ within the town over the future of the iconic Victorian structure.
She is critical of the tone of the debate about the future of the pier which has taken place on social media in recent months saying: “To be clear I don’t think anybody should be abusing anyone else involved on social media or anywhere else. For what it’s worth, I would ask anyone who has any respect for me and for what we all did together as a community in rescuing the pier from the brink of destruction to the beauty that it is today, to give Mr Gulzar the benefit of the doubt, to support the pier now and to take the long term view.”
Writing on her own blog Jess Steele admits some regrets about the way last year’s battle to secure the future of Hastings Pier in community ownership was conducted by the group Friends of Hastings Pier, she says: “Many people have criticised my attempt to buy the pier back from Mr Gulzar. They may well be right. It’s certainly a key regret in an otherwise proud story.”
She explains: “More people have criticised the boos and shouts by the small crowd of people and I agree (I think most people who were there agree) that was a bad move. Pretty quickly, but not quickly enough, I encouraged everyone to withdraw to the White Rock Hotel.”
Ms Steele explains that the following day she sent a message to the pier’s then new owner Sheikh Abid Gulzar asking for him to meet her.
She also says that for the administrators of the pier to have accepted the bid by FOHP it would have required, “…a leap of faith,” but concludes that it was, “…a different blind jump they made in choosing Mr Gulzar.”
Of Mr Gulzar himself she says: “…I think he loves the pier and is doing his best. He has certainly taken on a challenging asset.”
Ms Steele encourages those who read her statement to share it widely and says she hope it will, “remind us of the positivity that was the hallmark of the campaign to save the pier.”
Miss Steele’s statement in full….
Since last summer there has been a disturbing level of polarisation within the town about the pier. I hope that this statement will help to tackle that and remind us of the positivity that was the hallmark of the campaign to save the pier. This statement comes from me as an individual and I’d like to lay out my involvement as clearly as I can.
I was one of the local people who got together to try to save the pier in 2006 when it was closed for safety reasons due to lack of investment by the private owner Ravenclaw (based in Panama). We set up Friends of Hastings Pier as a community group to keep the pier in the public eye
In January 2008 it became clear no-one else was going to rescue the pier so we set up Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust. HPWRT was like the ‘midwife’ to try to deliver a different future for the pier – we focused on funding, ownership, engineering, commercial propositions, and very high levels of community involvement.
Once we were successful with HLF funding we established Hastings Pier Charity (HPC) to take the project forward and changed the name of HPWRT to White Rock Trust to focus on the rest of the neighbourhood.
As the voluntary Treasurer, I played a leading role in overseeing the first phase of HLF funding – including supporting the main ‘Round 2’ bid to HLF for £11.5M, helping to raise the match-funding, working with the council to achieve the CPO (compulsory purchase order), and seeing the organisation through the conversion from a charity to a charitable community benefit society so that it could raise community shares.
I resigned from HPC in January 2014 as it seemed that everything was in place – the ownership, funds for restoration, the board and a staff team. I became just an ordinary shareholder, delighted that the pier was being restored.
I got on with other stuff, including the transformation of Rock House and helping to set up Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust to achieve homes and workspaces for local people that will be affordable in perpetuity.
I was asked by the new chair of the HPC board to get involved again briefly in 2017, in a paid role for the first and only time, mainly helping with financial modelling – it was my spreadsheets that the Administrators sent out to potential bidders. That was when it became clear that the pier operation was not financially sustainable.
Faced with daunting distractions like a £1m impact storm and an underperforming private catering contract, they had lost sight of ‘Phase 2’ – the need for investment for a new building and an active programme to drive footfall and dwell-time.
I was not consulted about the board’s decision to put HPC into administration in November 2017 – the first I heard about it was the administrator’s letter to shareholders.
I was persuaded by others who had been involved in the original Friends of Hastings Pier that we should call a meeting for those who wanted to be active and constructive which we did in February 2018 – 60 people came, including Mr Gulzar.
We then arranged a much bigger meeting on April 23rd with 500 people. That meeting voted that we should press forward trying to put together a bid that would satisfy the administrators.
All I can say is that we tried very hard indeed, and we tried to do that in a transparent way that involved as many people as possible. It was extremely hard work from February until June, entirely voluntary and generally very positive – focusing on the future while learning from the past. We mobilised lots of people to be ‘active and constructive’. We had all-welcome ‘tea and strategy’ sessions every Friday and lots of digital input. The business plan was available online throughout the ‘bidding’ process.
I have been told that there is confusion about what we mean by a ‘community asset’. There is no formal definition but for me a community asset is a building or land that people care about, owned by a not-for-profit organisation to retain the value for local people, and enables local people to be involved in its development. That was what we were trying to achieve.
An Asset of Community Value is a different thing set up by the Localism Act (2011). These are usually owned by a private or state owner but nominated by a community group as being of community interest and therefore given some protection at disposal.
Our bid, of course, was not successful so it doesn’t make sense to spend much time on it. But I am told that there is a misinterpretation of what we were offering. Or rather that we shouldn’t complain because we didn’t make a cash offer for the purchase.
Looking back it seems obvious but there was never a time when Smith and Williamson (the administrators) or anyone else involved gave any idea they were looking for cash. Even the estate agent didn’t push for money – he just kept refusing when we tried to negotiate for time. They stressed over and over that what they were looking for was a sustainable future for the pier that would respect the fact that it had been saved through community effort. The ‘deep pockets’ frequently mentioned referred to someone who could sustain the losses for the first few years and invest both commercially and in the maintenance of the structure.
So we focused everything on those points – financing a transition period, planning for a significant commercial investment of new covered space, and raising enough funds to keep the pier properly maintained and insured. Our business plan included detailed financial modelling and showed that with the resources pledged and projected we could achieve all of that.
Business plans are notoriously unreliable, full of assumptions that might not come true. But they’re better than no plan at all.
I’m happy to be held accountable for the quality of the bid, with all its errors and its ultimate lack of success. I still think it was as good as we could do. It would have been a leap of faith for the decision-makers to choose FOHP. It was a different blind jump they made in choosing Mr Gulzar.
Another point where clarification has been requested is my views of the administration process. The Insolvency Act 1980 gives Administrators a very wide range of powers. As far as I know Smith and Williamson acted solely and legitimately within those powers. But I found it a bewildering process. There seemed to be no clear rules to it and certainly no scope for flexibility or collaboration for the sake of the pier. Nevertheless we kept going – business planning, developing a partnership, crowdfunding, leafleting, keeping people informed, and trying to keep up morale for the pier staff and volunteers for whom this was a horrible time of uncertainty.
I sincerely regret the high emotions on the night of the sale and I apologise to Mr Gulzar if he found it upsetting. I’ll give some explanation, though not as an excuse, just for information.
June 15th 2018 was a very stressful day at the end of a very stressful six months. The previous day we had put in our ‘final offer’ (ie the most refined version of the Friends Plan for Hastings Pier, with financial information and the draft Heads of Terms for our partnership with a commercial operator). But I woke up to rumours that the pier had been sold for £35,000, later people said it was £50,000. Maybe we had all been stupid, but suddenly ‘the penny dropped’ as it were. They were looking for cash! Well, we could do that kind of cash – I picked up my company chequebook, secure in the knowledge that other people would help fund this, we could just about cover it temporarily and we were about to hit our £500,000 target on Crowdfunder.
People began to gather on the pier to find out what was going on. The place was full of media crews swapping gossip they were getting from Eastbourne. I think the word is ‘febrile’, and it was also incredibly hot. We were there all day. At noon I received an email from Adam Stephens at Smith and Williamson saying that ‘no decision has been made’. We waited until 7pm and then gave up. So when I got a call at 9.30pm saying Mr Gulzar was on his way to claim his pier I was not in the best of moods! I headed back down and we invited other volunteers to join us.
Many people have criticised my attempt to buy the pier back from Mr Gulzar. They may well be right. It’s certainly a key regret in an otherwise proud story. But I couldn’t think what else to do. It felt like there was this one last thing we could try – maybe he would say, “yes you can invest that money and we can work together”. I was very tense but quite polite.
More people have criticised the boos and shouts by the small crowd of people and I agree (I think most people who were there agree) that was a bad move. Pretty quickly, but not quickly enough, I encouraged everyone to withdraw to the White Rock Hotel. I sent Mr Gulzar this email that night:
Dear Mr Gulzar
Emotions ran high tonight so we decided it was best to give you space.
As you know we are very concerned about the future of the pier and the impact on the community of this private sale. However it will be important to explore ways of working together for the benefit of Hastings Pier.
I plan to be on the pier this Sunday afternoon. Are you available to meet to discuss your plans to engage with the local community?
Jess (on behalf of Friends of Hastings Pier)
I have nothing at all against Mr Gulzar. He didn’t do anything wrong, just took a perfectly reasonable opportunity. From the little I know of him I think he loves the pier and is doing his best. He has certainly taken on a challenging asset. Both within FOHP and on my own behalf I have said over and over that the issue is not with Mr Gulzar as owner. The only thing that matters is the long-term protection of the pier.
My problem has always been with the decision that a private owner would be better than a community owner. The dream for Hastings Pier was that it would be in community ownership – owned by people who cared primarily about the pier rather than about profit – and that would be a sustainable way forward for the long term – talking 20, 30, 50 years. After just two seasons from a late opening, I don’t think it was given enough time to prove that.
I stood down from FOHP officially in front of 100 people on December 2nd 2018. Prior to that I tried to encourage mediation. We took advantage of a voluntary offer from a local resident with a strong background in negotiations to approach Mr Gulzar with suggestions about a memorandum of understanding that would serve and protect both ‘sides’. At first it seemed that might be possible but then Mr Gulzar changed his mind and wouldn’t talk anymore. I do understand that he has been very much in the spotlight. I don’t understand why he didn’t anticipate that and take action to build bridges from the start.
To be clear I don’t think anybody should be abusing anyone else involved on social media or anywhere else. For what it’s worth, I would ask anyone that has any respect for me and for what we all did together as a community in rescuing the pier from the brink of destruction to the beauty that it is today, to give Mr Gulzar the benefit of the doubt, to support the pier now and to take the long term view. As citizens of Hastings we and the generations that come after us will need to look out for that pier. As Brighton, Colwyn Bay and too many other places can testify – once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Hastings Pier is no longer my responsibility in any sense and this will be my last comment on it. As the owner, the main responsibility for the pier now lies with Mr Gulzar, but it would be unfair to let him carry all the weight. I will always support the pier, whoever owns it. Personally I have no problem at all with the gold, the animals, even the sheds and the slot machines. These are the ephemera of any particular season – they are not the essence of the pier. It has been with us for 150 years, loved by many people in the town over the generations. I hope that we can get over these nasty divisions and focus on looking after our town – the people as well as the pier.
Thanks for reading, please share this statement to help clarify the situation and let’s go back to being the town that saved a pier.