Emma Harwood reports

Last November, when the Pier Charity went into administration, its principal creditor the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to fund fees and expenses for a further twelve month period in order to allow the future of the pier to be determined in an orderly way. Administrators Adam Stephens and Finbarr O’Connell of City insolvency practitioners Smith and Williamson (S & W) published their proposal to creditors at the end of January this year laying out their aim “to source a party to fund and ensure the pier’s long term viability.”  Last month they formally appointed national property agents GVA to offer it for sale on the open market.

Mr Stephens has insisted to HIP that S & W were still working hard to ensure there would be plenty of events taking place on the pier throughout this year.  However he added: “We have a statutory duty to consider all offers and business proposals for the pier to operate sustainably. As regards the sale notice, we are seeking the best outcome for creditors, and so we have advertised it for sale.”

Richard Baldwin, the GVA director appointed to pursue the sale, has not only a wide involvement of selling piers elsewhere but also had prior dealings with Hastings pier, having acted on behalf of Hastings Borough Council in its litigation with former Panamanian company owner Ravenclaw after the forced closure in 2006.  Despite this historical record of private neglect he has told HIP that, in his experience, piers operating successfully today around the country are all run by private owners. “The Panamanian owner obviously had no interest in preserving it”, he admitted.  “But I don’t know how, unless the council come to buy it, you would facilitate a public ownership and have a private operator and also fulfil the obligations of the administrators. There’s an obligation to try and get money for creditors.”

The principal beneficiaries so far seem to be the administrators themselves.  While the day-to-day work on the pier is still carried out largely by unpaid volunteers, S & W’s January report revealed that over  £76,000 worth of time costs in consultancy to the Pier Charity directors was racked up between September and November 2017 and a further £87,000 between 24 November and 5 January in the course of the administration.  The majority of these were incurred by partners Messrs Stephens and O’Connell at the individual rate of £500 per hour plus VAT including travel, meaning that any meetings in Hastings attended by either of them would have cost around £1,200 for the journey alone to and from their office in London. 

Now revived Friends of Hastings Pier (click here) have criticised S & W for acting more like liquidators than as seekers of sustainable solutions. Prior to the administration the Pier Charity trustees had drawn up a business plan shared with the Heritage Lottery Fund, Hastings Borough and East Sussex County councils which required £800,000 worth of investment over three years.  Jess Steele, speaking for FoHP, maintains that this investment would have funded the building of a weatherproof  structure which could hold up to 2,500 people and which would have helped realise shareholders’ and supporters’ vision of the “People’s Pier” as a major music and arts venue.

“It was never the intention to leave the revitalised pier with ‘nothing on it’”, she says. “The aim was stable ownership, a stable platform, and an initial business plan that could sustain it while seeking further investment for phase two of the ‘21st century pleasure pier’, to include additional shelter, a major events programme, and, eventually, the reinstatement of the landing stage.”

She adds: “We believe that there is a way for the pier to return to community ownership to protect its long-term future while working with a private operator to run it as a sustainable commercial operation. Whilst financial support might be needed again in the short term, the Pier can be financially viable, indeed profitable, in the medium to long term. Selling it off  into private hands would be risky, irreversible, and will result in the loss of community control of a valuable and strategic local asset.

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