Builders have started work restoring the Observer Building – one of Hastings’ most iconic sites. Now, to fully realise its potential and generate jobs, homes and leisure opportunities, the team behind it needs your help.

By Caf Fean and Beth Woolf

For over thirty years the Observer Building has lain vacant. A towering reminder of an important part of local history that Hastings seemed to have lost as jobs and industry moved away from the America Ground in the 1980s. Now the team behind the successful Rock House development has their sights firmly set on bringing this sleeping giant back to life. 

The team on the ground floor of the building
PICTURE: John Cole

Since 2014, Rock House has become a thriving mixed-use building, a home to 43 small local enterprises who have seen their businesses burgeon in the heart of the town. Furthermore, it has brought affordable housing to some of the most in need in our community with 6 flats rented to local people. All tenants in the building pay securely capped rents that only rise with inflation. 

“Power is held in land and buildings, and unless communities own some of these they will never have the power to make change happen in their neighbourhood”
Jess Steele, Director
White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures

Spurred on by that success, the Observer Building has become the next project that local social entrepreneurs have set about developing to help Hastings thrive. White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures plans to transform the 1920s newspaper office, creating a place where local business can flourish and two floors of capped rent housing, as well as fostering a thriving leisure economy in the town centre. 

The project aims to help local people, too: “we’re not in it for the money”, Jess Steele, one of the project’s founders, explains.

The artist ’REQ’ transforms the front shutters
PICTURE: John Cole

“We cap the rents in perpetuity to keep our neighbourhood affordable. In recent years there have been almost zero affordable homes created here, so although sixteen flats doesn’t feel enough, it’s certainly better than what’s been happening to date. The social problem we are tackling is the displacement of local people (particularly creative people living in the town centre) by rising rents and house prices. It disrupts people’s lives. Over time, it will reduce the diversity and vitality of our town.” 

Alongside supporting local creatives, the team are keen that the Observer Building has a role in helping some of the most in need in Hastings. “We act as a good landlord. Unlike a lot of letting agents, we welcome housing benefit claimants. We don’t charge admin fees. We don’t require guarantors or proof of stable earnings. We’re flexible to support people who struggle to rent space in the current climate. We choose our tenants in a different way – by looking at how much they need affordable space and how they intend to contribute to the physical and social upkeep of the building and community space.”

“But getting to this stage, joining forces with local groups, securing funding to buy the building, and paying the builders to start work hasn’t been easy.”

“My mum wonders how I ever get any sleep when this is such a major project – but I really feel passionately about the neighbourhood. And we’re so close to creating something special. We’ve bought the building. Now we need to renovate.”

Robin Crowley’s model showing the planned areas of the building

“We’re asking local people to get involved and help see this through. We’ve started a crowdfunder to help us demonstrate that local people care. It shows the larger funders that people want to see the Observer Building open again and doing good. That’s why donations from as little as £1 matter. Not only that, we want your messages about what this could mean to the town.” 

“The old Hastings Observer empire provided 500 jobs to the town, let’s bring them back again.”

• Donate and comment here BEFORE 4th May: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/
the-observer-building

• Find out more about the Observer Building here: www.theobserverbuilding.org.uk

• Facebook: www.facebook.com/HastingsOBobhastingoboboboboband successfully redeveloped Rock House. She is a trustee of Heart of Hastings CLT.


HOT OFF THE PRESS

Facts about the Observer Building 

Where is it?
53 Cambridge Road, Hastings Town Centre (near ESK, next door to Rock House).  

History?
Designed by prolific Hastings architect, Henry Ward, it was built in 1924 for FJ Parsons and served as the Hastings & St Leonards Observer Newspaper offices and printworks until the mid-1980s.

How much space?
4000 square metres of derelict newspaper office in the town centre. 

Plans?
Initial proposed plans include a thriving leisure destination on the alley level, mezzanine and ground floors, co-working spaces on the first floor, artist-maker spaces on the second and third floors, a construction workshop to support the renovation, and a roof garden and bar looking out to sea.

The second and third floors will eventually be converted to flats to be let at capped rents. Work won’t begin on these before mid-2021 as funding allows. 

Wait a minute… have we been here before?
The OB has had 14 owners and 8 planning applications since 1985, and yet nobody has brought the building back into proper use. WRNV plan to change that, for good.

Who is Jess Steele?
Jess is a local resident and long-time community entrepreneur. She brought together the partnership that makes up White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures (Meanwhile Space, Jericho Road, Power to Change) which bought and successfully redeveloped Rock House. She is a trustee of Heart of Hastings CLT.


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