Community Ledge #12: Hastings & St Leonards
Hastings & St Leonards has a long history of community involvement and it seems an appropriate moment to give the town itself recognition as THE Community Ledge. There has been an upsurge of wonderful community-led initiatives around the country, but our town appears to have had a particularly well-coordinated response. Be that as it may, this is a local paper and we applaud all the effort that has been made in our local community. And that includes our sponsor, the Albion Pub.
HIP talked to an anonymous spokesperson for the town.
PICTURE: JJ Waller
People often say that H&SL is ‘different’. In what way?
It depends who you talk to. In 2017, Culture Trip called Hastings “the Shoreditch Of Sussex and the UK’s new art hotspot”, but that’s the fickle metropolitan media. To understand the place, you have to look back through its history.
What aspects of history?
Well, quite a number of significant people have lived
and worked here and given the town a community identity: people like Robert Tressel, who wrote The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists and spotlighted exploitative employment, or Muriel Matters, the famous suffragette after whom the council offices are named.
So is it a very political town (or towns)?
That’s the thing. There’s actually a mixture of different types of people that have produced the culture we have today. So, as well as the political figures, there are all sorts of other interesting characters, including Aleister Crowley, dubbed by the press as “the wickedest person in the world”. Or was he the embodiment of Hastings, claiming as he did that his work was truly good “because it freed men from earthly rules and opened up truly spiritual experiences”?
What about the poverty and deprivation?
Yes, the town has suffered from some difficult circumstances. But it’s also something that has contributed to the community nature of the town. Deprivation created a need for help and advice and many organisations have sprung up to supply that, not just middle class ‘do-gooders’, but also grass roots organisations like Surviving the Streets. Maybe I’m painting a rosy picture here as there are inevitable tensions, but people seem to rub along together – there’s a certain tolerance,
a mixture of openness and compassion.
What are the ‘difficult circumstances’?
We’ve all heard about the decline of Hastings’ fortunes since the 1960s with the introduction of cheap foreign holidays. Hastings’ hotels and vacant housing
stock have been used to rehouse some of the poorer communities from London. Local author Tom Blass says in an article in the Independent (17/3/16) “One common denominator is a long-held charge against some councils – and their alleged collaborators, local landlords – that they’ve
used seaside towns as ‘dumping grounds’ for people whom they’d otherwise have to house at greater expense in their own boroughs – resulting in visible social and personal dislocation.”
What makes this town so great, then?
It’s the way it seems to cope with the problems. Hastings is active in the Transition movement, for example. One of their principles is to foster positive visioning and creativity: “Our primary focus is not on being against things, but on developing and promoting positive possibilities.” They have a belief in using creative ways to engage and involve people which is very much a part of the town’s character. But they’re just one of many active organisations that collaborate within the town. Even one of the local taxi companies, 24/7, is providing free lifts to work for NHS staff.
How has this affected the town’s response to the pandemic?
The response seems to have been almost organic. Interestingly, one of the major responders: Hastings Emergency Action Response Team (HEART) was kicked off by two local residents who just ‘wanted to do something’. A lot of activities have evolved around that hub, involving all sorts of local charities and organisations. And for whatever the reason, data released by Public Health England on 13th May reported that H&SL had the lowest infection rate in the UK of 48.5 per 100,000 people.
What about the much-talked-about ‘creative community’?
Again, a huge response. And for historical reasons. It’s not just artists who have been attracted to the town, but also those with specialist skills like costume makers, milliners, picture framers. These are people who can repurpose their skills as the costume makers did, making scrubs for the NHS.
So what do you think is the future for Hastings?
We have short memories and it would be easy to lose community momentum. But there are already plans to use the energy created to support the town through the economic disruption that will follow. Quoting from Action for Happiness “Helping others is not only good for them and a good thing to do, it also makes us happier and healthier too. Giving also connects us to others, creating stronger communities and helping to build a happier society for everyone.”
The Horse & Groom Pub
• And read what it takes to be a Community Ledge here
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