Saturday, 9 October 2010

Pier saga

When the phone goes off in the middle of the night you always expect it to be bad news. Last Monday it was – “The Pier’s on fire can you come down?” Of course I did and what I saw were orange flames many feet high devouring the ballroom.

Then they devoured the bridge section (where now there is no sign of a building ever being there), then they devoured the bingo hall section, the front and finally half of the apron buildings.

Going down many times since to speak to TV and radio there has always been a crowd of people just looking in disbelief, horror or almost paying their last respects to an old friend. The Pier really had a place in the hearts of local people because we had all been on it, many people when it really was a fun place – a real seaside attraction.

So what now? While I understand those who have set up the ‘RIP Hastings Pier’ Facebook site, let’s not read the last rites just yet.

The council has commissioned structural engineers who will be down in the next few days to investigate the extent of the damage to the cast iron columns and the substructure. And of course it is what’s underneath that is the Victorian heritage that made the Pier a listed building. What was on top dated from many different eras, even from 1999/2000.

If the substructure is sound the Pier Trust and the council may still be able to find external funders who are committed to preserving the architectural heritage of the Pier. It would take a lot of investment but clearly the only way to maintain that heritage is then to rebuild on top to earn an income from visitors and townspeople alike.

There are no guarantees but we get nowhere without optimism and commitment and the Pier Trust has plenty of that.

So of course those very photogenic pictures of the fire took the front page of the Observer. Any other week the announcement of 800 new jobs for the town would have been the headline.

Saga will become the largest private sector employer in the town. They are purchasing a new office development in the town centre built by the local regeneration company – Seaspace. Work will now start to fit-out the building with Saga planning to start business there by the New Year. The staff will be employed by Saga’s expanding insurance business.

This is the best possible news for the town. After the tragedy of the Pier fire the announcement of substantial new job opportunities is lifting spirits locally. We really welcome Saga, we welcome the jobs and the boost they will bring to the local economy.

The success in attracting Saga proves the validity of the regeneration programme. The town centre office space was built precisely to attract quality businesses to Hastings – in Saga we have got just that.

I believe Hastings is really on the up. 800 new jobs on the way, the nationally significant Jerwood gallery due to open next year, the university centre second phase going up before our eyes. And we still haven’t given up on Hastings Pier