Engaging with the Community – On What?
On Friday 15th June the pier structure and its ongoing business were sold by the Administrators of Hastings Pier Charity to Sheikh Abid Gulzar, owner of Eastbourne Pier. At the time of going to press both the Administrators and the Heritage Lottery Fund as controlling creditor have declined to disclose the price paid. In an interview by Tom Savvides of Meridian TV the following day Gulzar said that it was “millions of pounds”, but there have been reports from various unconfirmed sources that it was in fact £50,000.
The sale came in for immediate criticism, not only from the community group Friends of Hastings Pier (FoHP) which had raised around £475,000 from crowdfunding to present a rival bid but also from Hastings Council leader Peter Chowney. He declared himself “disappointed and rather angry” about the process adopted – in particular the fact that Gulzar, unlike other parties who had expressed interest in bidding, had taken no steps to discuss any development ideas with the Council’s planning officers. Many others unconnected with FoHP have gone on social media to express outrage that a community asset of this sort, restored at public cost of upwards of £14 million and thereafter, could be sold to a private operator for a small fraction of this expenditure with no apparent guarantees as to what he will now do with it and no examination of whether what he intends will be acceptable in planning terms.
Behind the sale decision there seems to be an assumption either that the “community” of Hastings will, despite their immediate disappointment at not getting another chance to run the pier as they want it, give Gulzar their support to run it his way – or else that, being a successful businessman with deep pockets, he won’t need it. In the light of the financial revelations set out right, that is highly questionable.
The Heritage Lottery Fund
Eilish McGuinness, Director of Operations at HLF, issued a press statement on its behalf on the day of the sale, 15th June. In it she said: “We have been fully committed to a community-owned Hastings Pier – that is what we originally funded and we have done everything we can to make it a success…
Our priority is to see the pier protected and continuing to make a significant contribution to the town’s community, prosperity and culture. We believe today’s decision by the administrator is the best way of achieving this. We applaud the local community and their tireless commitment to the pier. We hope that all parties can now work together to ensure the pier has a bright future”.
In their initial press release also issued on 15th June the Administrators, Adam Stephens and Finbarr O’Connell of Smith Williamson, stated: “Mr Gulzar is keen to engage with the local community and will be delivering his ideas for investing in the pier in due course”. A further statement of 20th June concludes – “We have introduced the new owner to the various local interested parties and are seeking to work with the various parties to ensure that this new start for the Pier gets the co-operation and support it needs from the local community to make it a success.”
First up was Amber Rudd MP who issued a statement – “I was very encouraged to meet with Mr Gulzar. I welcome (his) commitment to work closely with the community and I am reassured that our pier will be able to enjoy a sustainable and successful future.” But the extent of his commitment to her seems to have been that he would honour “all future bookings for events being held on the pier”, for which he will have already been legally liable, having been required by the administrators to buy the pier’s business as a going concern, and that the pier “will always remain free to visit”.
As indicated above, the Council have not, until this week at least, had any direct communication, let alone meeting, with Mr Gulzar.
He has, however, been rather more forthcoming in front of TV cameras. On Sunday BBC South-East broadcast an address in the form of an appeal to the people of Hastings – “All hands on deck.
Let’s work. At my age I don’t have time for a five year plan or a ten year plan. Tomorrow’s work – do it today”.
At the time of going to press it is not clear what that work is, who is going to do it, and who will ultimately pay.
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