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The people of Hastings, England are taking matters into their own hands to tackle rising local property prices with ambitious plans to build affordable long-term housing

Recognising that rapidly rising rents are driving residents out of Hastings, East Sussex, and threatening the town’s diversity, the group wanted to create a solution. After a local partnership achieved success in converting a disused office block into a mixed-use space, another community group is now planning further developments in the town and a substantial community build housing project on the site of the old Hastings power station.

Managed by a dedicated group of people in Hastings, the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust (CLT) is a community benefit society determined to rejuvenate the town. The group is focused on creating housing that is not only owned and managed by the community but also provides affordable housing for residents in the long term.

Jess Steele OBE, one of the CLT’s trustees, led the successful £14m two-year rebuild of Hastings Pier after it burnt down, opening to the public in April 2016. The focus on ensuring the new pier was a central part of the neighbourhood sparked discussions about how the neighbourhood could in turn be a better-connected part of the pier. “Price rises in the town were beginning to worry us”, said Jess, “so we held a series of public meetings to ask whether gentrification was taking place, whether it was a problem and, if so, what we could do about it. Though there are economic benefits, rising prices displace less well-off people, the main contributors to making the neighbourhood creative, diverse and interesting.”

Determined to find a workable solution to this problem, the newly-formed CLT is drawing on the experience of the conversion of a disused office building in the White Rock area of the town, by White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures, in which Jess Steele is also involved. Rock House now offers a vibrant mixed-use space for small businesses and residents, with affordable rents capped for the long term, linked to local incomes.

The Rock House approach has transformed life for Bob Williams, 61, who has lived there for four months. “I came to Hastings four years ago to care for my mother who was ill and to create a better quality of life for myself”, said Bob. “I then became ill and found myself needing accommodation and it was a heartbreaking and dispiriting process. Probably 1% of the housing in Hastings is affordable for a single person but it’s very poor quality, so my life was completely on hold. Moving to Rock House has made a world of difference to me. It’s a proper community where everyone feels like they have a stake,” said Bob. “I would absolutely recommend this way of life to anyone.”

Building on the Rock House model of refurbishment and rent levels, Heart of Hastings CLT is turning its attention to other redevelopments in White Rock, with a community share offer launch planned for 9 December, and is also planning a major new development on the old Hastings power station site in Ore Valley, among the poorest 1% of areas in England. The area suffered badly from post-industrial isolation when the power station suffered a fire in 2000 and was then demolished in 2003, and has been in long-term decline. The ambitious development now aims to truly connect the land with the local people for the first time.

Tania Charman, a member of the CLT’s Board, long-time local resident and councillor for Old Hastings and Tressell, emphasises that the plan for the site, which would enable members of the community to collectively build and own new, genuinely affordable housing, is “a people’s project, an opportunity to have some control for ourselves, in our own future, our security.” At this early stage the group are, Tania says, encouraging people interested in helping to revitalise the local neighbourhood to “get involved and have a say, help inform the plans and policies”.

In addition to providing housing opportunity for those in need, the project also aims to employ local people, “possibly people who have been long-term unemployed, helping them to gain skills, take on apprenticeships”, said Rodney Buse, a CLT specialist on the Board. “There are also many people who like the idea of having a small business on the site, contributing to the work, there could be half a dozen. We could also see a local contractor providing food for the site during the build, and perhaps working with the neighbouring college on developing skills. If it works as we all believe it will, it will become a model that can be replicated.”

Daniel O’Connor, who grew up in Ore Valley, is lead volunteer for the project. “I’ve seen the power station go from useless relic to dangerous eyesore and then ignored waste ground. I’m excited by the possibilities that the CLT project can bring, greatly benefiting local people.” Having been long-term unemployed, the benefit of being involved with the project, Daniel says, “has been massive. I’ve gained skills and found purpose working with good people on a project I believe in. I’ve grown in confidence, my physical and mental health have improved, and I feel a part of my community.”

Hastings resident Jonny Ladd is involved with the CLT as manager of the old power station site. Currently helping to organise neighbourhood events and get local people involved with and discussing ideas for the site, he’s enthusiastic about the huge potential for the community. “The affordable housing will be crucial to the valley, also giving local people the chance to learn new skills through the build.” Already mentoring the construction of several wooden seating pods, Jonny continued, “It’s very rewarding to pass on my woodworking and design skills to volunteers working on the site, and to see the new friendships that are being created in the community.”

The Ore Valley project has captured the interest of Assemble, the architects behind the 2015 Turner Prize-winning Granby Four Streets CLT development of housing in a deprived area of Liverpool. As design advisers for the project Assemble will “help us to design a future for another very poor part of the country,” says Jess Steele.

“This site is the heart of the valley and has the potential to really unite this community,” says Tania Charman. “I’ve learnt a lot, it’s amazing. I’d say to anyone who wants to get involved, you won’t believe what you’ll learn as part of the project, there’s a ‘wow’ moment every week.”

The group are currently focused on seeking input from members of the community about the project, and working on planning and funding matters, a phase which will last until April 2018. A 12-week ‘organisation workshop’ process would then take place to build a practice house on site. Much is yet to be decided through community involvement, though it is envisaged that a builders’ co-operative could then be formed from the participants to carry out work on the other properties, or to be involved with a professional construction company, using all of the skills and organisation generated, which the CLT projects will take a further two years or more.

The group is also seeking community investment for collective purchase of other residential property to develop much-needed affordable housing in the White Rock area of town, to be launched at an event on 9 December.

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