A renovated pier attracts promenading tourists and becomes a valuable asset for locals and the adjacent town
Our fabulous long hot summer may now be finally starting to fade, but a recent report points the way to a gloriously sunny future for the iconic structure of our traditional British coastal resort, the seaside pier.
“Seaside piers make us smile, but too many are trapped in a cycle of neglectful ownership with only periodic attempts at conservation,” says Jess Steele, the author of the People’s Piers report by Co-ops UK, the trade body that promotes co-operative businesses across the UK.
“We believe that there is a new option now being pioneered for Hastings pier, which is to take piers into local community ownership.”
At the turn of the last century, there were almost 100 piers, but now only half remain and several face an uncertain future.
Dr Anya Chapman, of the National Piers Society, says: “The seaside piers around the coast of Britain stand as a powerful reminder of the achievements of Victorian engineers and entrepreneurs.”
Piers began life in the early 19th century as landing jetties for coastal paddle steamers, which were for many years a key mode of transport for coastal communities.
“However, with the expansion of the railways in the mid 19th century, piers gradually became places of entertainment with bandstands and the popular pastime of promenading from the 1860s to the early 1900s, which was the boom period in pier-building,” says Chapman, who is also programme leader for tourism management at Bournemouth University.
So what is the economic and cultural significance of piers, and why are they worth saving?
“Piers are totemic assets and a totem brings people together, symbolising their kinship and the things they have in common,” says Steele. “Flat, free and open to everyone, piers are the epitome of accessible open space and act like a public park stretching out over the silver sea.”
Chapman agrees, adding that the Victorian pleasure pier is unique to the UK and that we have the biggest range of piers anywhere in the world.
The economic argument for piers is also compelling. “Piers,” says Chapman, “have a wider social and economic benefit in attracting footfall and acting as an anchor on the seafront.
“For example, the successful regeneration of Southport seafront was dependent on Southport pier being restored. It then became an important local tourist attraction.”
The decline of the pier reflects a similar decline in the fortunes of many of the UK’s seaside resorts. This was highlighted in a recent ONS report, which revealed that those living in England’s top beach resorts suffer above-average deprivation.
The positive impact that a seaside pier can have on a local economy was a key driver in the campaign to restore Hastings pier, which had been closed since it was ravaged by fire in 2010.
“Hastings is probably the poorest town in south east England,” says Steele, who was involved in the campaign to restore its pier. “The impact of the pier closure on local businesses was terrible because there was no longer any footfall.”
Following a vigorous and popular local campaign to save the pier, a compulsory purchase order was served on Hastings pier by Hastings borough council and it was transferred to local ownership. In turn this gave the green light to a £14m renovation project of the Grade II listed building.
“The lion’s share of this funding has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund with significant amounts from the Social Investment Business, the Coastal Communities Fund and the Community Assets Fund,” says Simon Opie, chief executive of the Hastings Pier Charity.
Work on the pier is expected to begin shortly and is scheduled to be finished by spring 2015.
“Our aim is to provide an open space, not just for promenading but for family and community celebrations as well as a real attraction for tourists and a valuable asset for locals and the town,” says Opie.
So what are the key benefits of operating a pier as a community-owned asset?
“When we were investigating solutions for our pier, we visited many others,” says Steele. “We found that those in public ownership tended to be unimaginative and dull; those in private ownership were more dynamic in their management but often failed to reinvest profits into the maintenance of the substructure, creating an inevitable downward spiral.
“Our solution was for a dedicated, transparent charitable ownership, coupled with local, co-operative-style membership and a strongly commercial and entrepreneurial management approach. The energy, passion and ambition has come from local people.”
The report into piers claims that the majority of the UK’s remaining piers are under threat from corrosive seawater and owners who fail to provide for the high maintenance costs and insurance bills, estimated at around £33m over the next five years, despite piers being popular with six million visitors a year.
Steele points out that at present 56% of piers are privately owned, with 39% in local authority hands and 5% in community ownership.
In response, the report calls for a fast-track compulsory transfer process to rescue these important community and heritage assets and a presumption in favour of local communities taking ownership.
“This is the perfect time for people’s piers,” says Steele. “There is no one better to manage the most precious of local assets than the local community.”
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