As I write, it’s raining. But wet seaside Sundays are an English tradition; undaunted, bands of bedraggled pirates celebrate Pirate Day in the Old Town and Priory Meadow. It takes a lot to dampen the fun in Hastings.
But there’s plenty more. From January’s International Chess Congress, the programme is almost continuous, through Fat Tuesday music festival, International Piano Concerto, Jack-in-the-Green, the Mid-Summer Fish Fest, Stade Saturdays, Carnival, Coastal Currents, Seafood and Wine, International Composers Festival, Hastings Week, Bonfire, the Herring Fair, and more. I doubt there’s another town in the UK with such a packed calendar, thanks to the local community who organise most of it, as well as the council.
And it’s good for business. Our events have a growing reputation, attracting thousands of tourists and seeing the opening of new ‘boutique’ hotels and quality self-catering accommodation to cater for them. It also makes Hastings a fabulous place to live and work.
This weekend, Hastings featured in the top 5 ‘coolest towns’ listed in The Times, the latest in a series of ‘best town’ listings, with rave reviews in various UK and overseas magazines. St Leonards is attracting particular attention, with its creative, alternative, artsy ambience, new galleries, restaurants and even a new theatre, gaining the not necessarily welcome ‘Shoreditch-by-Sea’ label, and having some of the fastest accelerating house prices nationally.
There’s physical regeneration too. The Jerwood Gallery and Stade Open Space, reborn pier, Grotbusted seafront, Sussex Coast College and Brighton University campus have all helped to improve the town’s image and prosperity. More seafront improvements are coming, including a refurbished Bottle Alley and White Rock Baths skateboard arena.
But it’s easy to bask in this glow of acclamation. Hastings still has problems. Lack of tourist bed spaces hampers the local economy - only 1,000 compared with 7,500 in Eastbourne. And social problems persist. Although unemployment is falling, it’s still the highest in the county, and well above the regional average. Almost a tenth of the working age population have no educational qualifications - again, the county’s highest. These problems are compounded in the more deprived areas, characterised by low-quality private and social rented housing, where life chances are poor. Programmes of training, apprenticeships, and targeted support have helped, but these chronic ills are hard to cure.
Such mixed fortunes create sharp contrasts, not unusual in regenerating towns. Staggeringly, life expectancy in the Broomgrove estate is 12 years lower than in neighbouring, wealthier areas. In Central St Leonards, street drinkers and drug abusers pursue their lethal lifestyles alongside moneyed Londoners who are snapping up property in this newly fashionable area.
So we are presented with a particular problem: as our town becomes more fashionable, how to protect the vulnerable and ensure regeneration benefits local people, so they aren’t simply displaced by unmediated gentrification. I’ll return to this in future columns.
So, yes, Hastings is booming, there’s plenty to celebrate, be proud of, and enjoy. But amidst this sunny wonderfulness there are still dark clouds. We must keep looking for ways to deal with our deep-seated social problems, and cope with those inevitable wet Sundays.