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31 October 2023

The housing battle of Hastings

A perfect storm is engulfing the East Sussex seaside town – and dozens of other councils facing bankruptcy.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Usually the term “housing crisis” is unhelpful. It’s a leaden shorthand, referring to too many things – house price inflation, planning reform, homelessness, renters’ rights, gentrification, second home ownership, council housing scarcity – to be useful.

But some pockets of Britain, often those in the south-east unlucky enough to be both beautiful and poor, have it all. Hastings is one. Away from its salt-whipped pebble beaches and bleached arcade fronts, this East Sussex seaside town has been hit with a perfect storm of housing woes.

From 2022 to 2023, rent in Hastings borough rose by 11.7 per cent – more than double the average UK rise. The typical rent for a one-bed flat is £805 a month, in a town where the median full-time salary is £25,536, well below the national average. House prices have doubled here in ten years, one of the biggest spikes in England.

Airbnbs collect like flotsam along the seafront: nearly 1,000 in the town centre. A similar number of people live in temporary accommodation: the euphemism for a room the council puts you up in if you end up homeless. Temporary accommodation will cost Hastings Borough Council £5.6m this year (up from £730,000 in 2019), expenditure that could mean bankruptcy by next February. The council leader has even evoked the Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme, asking the public to offer up spare rooms and prefabs in their gardens.

Hastings is spending nearly half its budget on temporary accommodation: the most extreme case of 20 English councils spending around a tenth or more of their yearly resources this way. They range from other seaside locations, such as Dover and Brighton and Hove, to the more affluent Home Counties enclaves of Spelthorne in Surrey and Sevenoaks in Kent. There are warnings that all could face bankruptcy within two years if the situation doesn’t change.

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Hastings – home of the “Winkle Club” (members must carry a winkle shell at all times) and a cliffside funicular – has had its civic quirk and faded grandeur swiftly gentrified. The town synonymous with the front line of the Norman conquest is now facing a new invasion, via the high-speed Southeastern service from London St Pancras.

Like other Sussex and Kent coastal towns, from the oyster capital of Whitstable to art-washed Margate, it has hosted an influx of upmarket businesses too pricey for locals in recent years. It seems that nowadays for every fisherman’s net hut – which stretch like blackened chimney stacks above the historic harbour – there’s a whitewashed boutique selling horsehair shaving brushes and bone-handled butter knives at £14.99 a piece. A pint of craft elderflower cider is easier to come by than a pint of whelks.

Londoners squeezed out of the capital, and particularly those who sought space and sea air during the pandemic, have bought up Victorian terraces and old fisherman’s cottages. They can work from home on London salaries, perhaps commuting on the 90-minute train journey into the capital twice a month, and live cheaper.

In a one-bedroom flat near the town centre, hung with canvases of Channel views and crammed with racks of dresses and shirts, I met Maggie*, 55, a self-employed tailor. Born and bred in Hastings, she had lived what she called a “middle-class life”, bringing up her three children in a four-bedroom Victorian house in St Leonard’s – a small town a 15-minute walk along the seafront from here.

After her husband fell gravely ill a few years ago, she had to stop working and sell their family home to pay for his care. For the first time, she encountered the realities of Hastings’ housing crisis: she ended up homeless for two years – sofa-surfing and relying on friends.

[See also: What does it mean when a council declares bankruptcy?]

“We have a huge housing crisis and Hastings is worse than anywhere, especially with the Airbnb thing,” she told me. “I’m very local, so I know housing hasn’t cost this much here until six or seven years ago. Now I know several fully grown adults in their forties, people I grew up with, who have had to leave town because there’s no way around the costs.”

For three years she has lived in this rented flat, in a converted nine-storey Sixties office building called Rock House. She pays £601 a month, a rent set at a third of median local income by an unusual grassroots landlord called Hastings Commons. Part social enterprise, part community land trust, it has bought up and renovated eight “derelict and difficult” buildings in the town centre – plus a network of caves and a Victorian alleyway carved out of a cliffside – for public good. Grants and loans from hundreds of organisations, including Historic England and the National Lottery, fund the scheme.

It lets out 12 flats across its buildings, and is currently retrofitting 12 more into a brightly lit floor with seagull views in the magnificent Twenties printing presses of the Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer, which had been abandoned since 1985. Criteria for tenancy include need for affordable space, local connection and enthusiasm for the organisation’s community ethos (Maggie bakes cakes for other occupants of Hastings Commons flats and workspaces). The average rent charged is £609.89.

“Hastings could easily be allowed to fail. The housing market has crumbled here, and this is having a direct impact on people’s lives and bankrupting the council,” said Jess Steele, founder of Hastings Commons. “Poor neighbourhoods like this get offered a false choice between gentrification and decline, but there is an alternative. That is our concept of self-renovating neighbourhoods, doing it ourselves from the bottom up.”

A number of not-for-profit grassroots landlords and community builders are buying up forgotten spaces across the country, including a row of terraces in Toxteth, Liverpool, and an old high street and theatre in Plymouth. Could pots of centrally allocated funding, such as the Levelling Up and Towns Fund, help replicate this organic housing solution on a national scale? As with many marginal Conservative constituencies, Hastings and Rye (where the Tory MP was elected in 2019 with a majority of 4,000) has been granted some of this cash: £24.3m from the Towns Fund.

While Hastings Commons used £4m of the fund for one of its recent building purchases, Steele was sceptical about these funds compensating for council cuts imposed since 2010. “You have to turn austerity back in some way in order to level up, and you don’t do that by dumping £20m and setting the rules on how it’s spent.”

Coastal towns are poorer and have higher rates of crime and sickness than the English average, according to research by the centre-right think tank Onward. An injection of housing into these areas, through new developments and repurposing disused buildings, could accommodate the inevitable arrival of remote workers while leaving room for long-time residents.

“With the stroke of a pen, Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, could launch a scheme via his department and Homes England that would unlock new [coastal] sites,” wrote Onward’s deputy director Adam Hawksbee in the Times.

Instead, as long-promised renters’ rights are abandoned and housebuilding targets dropped, such towns are being torn in two. Locals employed in the service sector are left homeless while newcomers enjoy a cheap and easy way of life. Forget the Red Wall and Blue Wall – the Conservative government may want to keep an eye on the “Sea Wall” of seats they face losing at the next election.

[See also: The UK housing crash is just beginning]

*Name and identifying details changed on request of anonymity.

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