Co-operation by the seaside

As seaside piers enjoy their busiest month of the year, we have published a report by Jess Steele, The People’s Piers, which examines the ownership, usage and future of Britain’s piers.

The good news is that seaside piers remain as popular as ever, with 6 million people a year visiting them. The report also shows that:

o The combined length of all the UK’s piers is 11 miles
o 69% of the UK population have visited a pier within the last 5 years, and 70% want to visit in the future.
o Just 3% of people would stay away from a pier despite the fact that 3 in 4 people say that seaside towns are shabby and run down.
o In Wales 72% of people want to visit a pier but only 52% do in Scotland, where fewer piers survive.
o Far from being a retired person’s pursuit, visiting a pier this summer has been more attractive to people under-35 than to those who are older.

“Seaside piers make us smile. But too many piers are trapped in a cycle of neglectful ownership with only periodic attempts at conservation”, says Jess. “We believe that there is a new option, now being pioneered for Hastings Pier, which is to take piers into local community ownership.”

Jess is Director of Jericho Road Solutions and an Associate Director for Community Organising for the wonderful national charity Locality. I first met her many years ago when she was trying to save a bridge over Deptford Creek in South London. Our shared friend, Jani Llewellyn, herself an inspiring activist and a passionate co-operator, brought us together, but died of cancer soon after.

Jess now lives in Hastings and has been directly involved since 2006 in the community efforts and activism around the rebirth of Hastings Pier.

Hastings Pier was rotting away under private foreign ownership (registered in Panama) until it was closed on safety grounds. The pier which was opened on the first ever August Bank Holiday, in 1872, transferred this month to community ownership. Alongside heritage grant funding, a ‘community share’ issue is expected to be launched in September so that local people will own the pier.

At present 56% of piers are privately owned, with 39% in local authority hands and 5% in community ownership. A new network of ‘people’s piers’ is emerging with the aim of spreading the community ownership model.

I was pleased that John Penrose MP, Coalition Minister for Tourism and Heritage until 2012, with two piers in his home constituency, was able to write a foreword for the report. He applauded “the search for new solutions to our national assets that can harness the passion and commitment that comes with co-operative and community models.”

Brian Smith, Chief Executive of Britain’s leading leisure co-operative HF Holidays and Chairman designate of the new Britain on Foot campaign, added: “Many of Britain’s piers are in disrepair. The co-operative model offers a new option, working in partnership with the local community to renew and maintain our seaside piers”.

We are now campaigning for a fast-track compulsory transfer process to rescue important community and heritage assets and a presumption in favour of local communities taking ownership of such assets.

I am not saying that co-operative piers can kick-start the economy, or be anything but hard work for those who care about them. But, look at this photo that I took a few days ago of Hastings Pier, still run-down and now to be refurbished.

When they succeed, when they are renewed… they could be exactly the image of hope, co-operation and renewal that the coastal communities of our island nations need.



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