Last Thursday Hastings Green Party, as represented by Julia Hilton, hosted the first of what will be regular monthly or bi-monthly talks on matters of community importance to the town. Entitled “Darning the Fabric: Regeneration from the Bottom Up” the talk was delivered by Jess Steele (see cover feature Issue 114).

The talk covered community projects in Hastings from the revival of the pier, through the successful reclamation of Rock House and 39 Cambridge Road, to ongoing projects such as the acquisition of the Observer Building, 12 Claremont, and continued work in Ore Valley. Jess united these different projects with one core idea: regeneration from the neighbourhood up. Development should not only include people living and working nearby, but be led by them as an effective, informed and interested group of individuals.

Too many “development” projects across the country end up as mere stock trading between rich and careless parties, at best managing to create some kind of unaffordable housing, at worst adding supposed value where there is none (as with our local Observer Building    see above) or in destroying existing community assets to replace them with generic and readily saleable alternatives.

Jess’s national organisation, born in Hastings, Jericho Road Solutions, aims to bring better regeneration and development practices to communities across the country, but starting here. Hastings is marked as the spearhead of a campaign for improvement, even though some feel that the local council does too little to encourage that improvement or to embrace community involvement.

Jericho Road aims to truly empower individuals, making them equal partners in ownership of their neighbourhood, their local space, should they wish to invest time and effort enough in acquiring that space for themselves.

While largely preaching to the crowd, Jess was challenged by various sceptics in an enthusiastic Q&A session after her talk. Some queried her apparent hostility to the capitalist system. Others expressed concern at ultimately undemocratic organisations claiming to speak for the community, while activists demanded legal action against flagrant conduct by developers. Jess responded that she doesn’t represent firebrand or revolutionary sentiments such as people might have assumed after her public expressions of anger at the pier being sold into private hands. She intends to organise legally-savvy, capitalist, efficient acquisition of local properties to make them work for Hastings’ community. And frankly, it is HBC and the developers that our town attracts who seem to be acting inappropriately, seeming to do everything in their power to limit community control of assets as a strange but blanket policy.

Jess engages staff experienced in development efforts and community enterprise internationally, and is currently pursuing a four-year PhD in “self-renovating neighbourhoods as an alternative to gentrification”. Her executive assistant at Jericho Road, Beth Woolf, has extensive experience working with charities, schools and development programmes both in the UK and in Latin America. The work of her own organisation, and of local organisations that she has helped to set up, represents commitment and the careful use of extensive knowledge. Can the same be said for HBC and its development partners?

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