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February 6, 2019

Public money for public good

Critics of Scottish Government’s financial support for the community ownership of land and buildings claim that it encourages an unhealthy culture of dependency. That line of argument not only turns a blind eye to the enormous tax breaks and subsidies granted to the private sector but ignores the fact that this is an investment in a long term and sustainable future for us all.  And even when the best laid plans go awry, clawback clauses from funders are usually in place. So how come the high profile Hastings Pier (£14m of public investment) was sold into private hands for £50k? Could this happen in Scotland?

Alex de Rijke Civil Society

A local group which failed in an attempt to buy Hastings pier has launched a campaign to prevent future community assets being sold off cheaply to private owners.

Hastings pier was sold to local businessman Sheikh Abid Gulzar last year after more than £14m of charitable funding had been spent on its restoration.

Hastings Pier Charity, a charitable industrial and provident society which previously owned the pier, went into administration in November 2017.

It had been given £12.7m of Heritage Lottery Fund money to rebuild the pier, which had been destroyed in a fire, and had raised hundreds of thousands from a community share offer.

Gulzar subsequently bought the pier for £50,000 despite local group Friends of Hastings Pier (FOHP) raising more than £500,000 to keep the pier in community ownership.

Now, FOHP has begun a campaign to scrutinise the laws around community assets that have being sold off without consideration for local community interests.

A spokesperson for FOHP said: “We are campaigning for a parliamentary review of the administration process relating to community assets.

“At the moment, administrators have to apply purely commercial considerations even when there has been considerable community investment and involvement, as was the case with the pier.

“This is clearly inappropriate. We are seeking a change of the law so that community interests can be taken in to account in future. This will not help us but may hopefully prevent what we went through happening to others.”

The local group wrote to Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye, requesting an inquiry into policy implications that arise from it for the operation of the Community Right to Bid and the other community rights enshrined in the Localism Act.

Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye, has passed FOHP’s request for an inquiry to Clive Betts, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee in September.

Betts said in his response that scrutiny of the Localism Act would likely have to follow the government’s publication of a memorandum assessing the operation of the act so far, which he hoped would happen soon.

Following a small electrical fire, Hastings pier, which won the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling prize for its design in 2017, closed for repairs and improvements in December and is not expected to open until at least March.

Local residents organised a community event, If You Love The Pier Then Join The Queue, earlier this month calling for the pier to be reopened.

About 250 people including Rudd attended the event but there has been no subsequent update on whether the pier will reopen any earlier.