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HFS' headquarters in Dorset Place.

Hastings Furniture Service: the first 25 years

Hastings Furniture Service has been making its presence felt in town for 25 years – its mission is to provide affordable furniture and electrical goods to low-income families. Among its other activities it provides training in relevant skills such as furniture restoration for the unemployed and unqualified, and opportunities for volunteers to make a worthwhile contribution. Comedian Mark Thomas is also part of the story, as chief executive Naomi Ridley explained to Nick Terdre.

Hastings Furniture Service – HFS – has a straight-forward business plan, selling second-hand furniture and electrical goods at prices which low-income families can afford. In fact anyone can buy from them, but people on benefits get a 30% discount and students and pensioners 10% off, while the rest pay full-price.

The organisation is clearly making a difference – last year some 300 tons of goods found new owners in this way, with some 4,000 low-income families in the Hastings and Rother areas the beneficiaries.

A good selection of furniture and electrical goods is available at the two stores in Hastings and Bexhill, but turnover is high and demand is strong. The charity’s three vans – two working out of Hastings and one in Bexhill – are constantly on the go, collecting and delivering. “We always need more stuff, particularly essential items like cookers and fridges,” says Naomi. “And we’ve been short of wardrobes for a while.”

Every effort is made on behalf of low-income customers. Delivery is free, while those paying full-price are charged a modest £5. Although credit is not available, if you can’t pay in one go, you can do so by instalments – but you don’t get the goods until you’ve paid the whole sum. “That way we’re not getting anyone into any further debt,” says Naomi, who has been with HFS since 2002.

While some customers find their own way to HFS, others are referred by different agencies, and HFS works with bodies such as East Sussex County Council and housing associations to provide goods for households in crisis.

In addition to the social value of the service, there is an environmental benefit in recycling unwanted goods which still have use in them. Collection is free, though the goods have to be in good condition.

So have austerity and the government’s clamp-down on benefits created more demand for HFS’s service? Not as much as might have been expected, in Naomi’s view.

“I think in this area there’s such a high level of unemployment already that the recession hasn’t made as much difference as you might expect,” she says. “We’ve noticed that we’re a bit busier, but since we started, we’ve been a bit busier each year. And when the economy improves, that doesn’t seem to dampen the need for affordable furniture either. Particularly in this area, the wages are so low that for a lot of people it’s really difficult all the time.”

Self-reliance

HFS provides this important service with a minimum of outside help – it used to get a small grant towards core costs from Hastings Borough Council but that has disappeared as government funding to local authorities has been drastically reduced. However Rother District Council still gives an annual grant of £2,500.

A registered charity and social enterprise, HFS has to keep itself going primarily from its own income. “Almost everything we do has to pay for itself,” Naomi says. “We don’t have to make a profit but we do have to try and make things cover their costs.”

In the past several years it has returned a small surplus of income over expenditure. The financial situation is helped by the fact that it owns the Hastings building outright, though it is still paying off the mortgage on the Bexhill branch. “One day we’ll own that too, which will be great for the sustainability of the organisation,” says Naomi. Full exemption from local business taxes also helps.

From furniture to art - local artists' responses to the 'furniture challenge.'

The stylish Hastings headquarters in Dorset Place, which opened in 2006, was purpose-built to a design drawn up by architect Neil Choudbury. Here there are well-equipped workshops for furniture restoration and, equally importantly, for training. One-day and two-day workshops are available to all, but again with reduced prices for those on benefits. Then there are longer courses in creative crafts run under contract to Sussex Downs College and Sussex Coast College which lead to City & Guilds Level One qualifications in subjects such as furniture restoration. Last year about 30 such qualifications were awarded. Details of a new training offer for 2014 are available on the HFS website.

 

Six-month, part-time paid posts are also available to 16 to 19-year-olds not in work, training or education under HFS’ own L-earn – learn while you earn – scheme. Those taken on learn such skills as customer service assistant or furniture workshop assistant while receiving help with their English and maths to better qualify them for seeking work or further education. HFS was recently commended by Own Grown, the local public/private partnership which promotes work prospects for young people.

Apprenticeships

Some of the young people on L-earn have progressed to one-year apprenticeships to Level Two at HFS. These apprenticeships are mainly in customer service, giving the apprentice general skills applicable to a wider range of jobs when they leave HFS. The value of this work has been recognised by HBC, which this year made a £10,000 grant from the Community Partnership fund to the programme. It doesn’t cover all the costs but is a very welcome contribution, Naomi says.

HFS also works with partner agencies and charities to provide training. This year it has been providing craft skills training for people trying to beat alcohol problems with the help of Action for Change, and teaching DIY and craft skills in women’s refuges. Such work has therapeutic as well as practical value, Naomi points out, and HFS plans to continue such cooperation in 2014.

Altogether some 50 people work or volunteer for HFS. It’s quite a mixed bunch with a wide age range – the core staff is 15, and there are another six on paid schemes or placements, typically staying for six-12 months. There are also volunteers, who help with deliveries and collections, or looking after the phone. “There are some young people volunteering for us while also going to college, several people with learning disabilities who have been with us for some time, and some of our workshop volunteers are in their 50s and 60s or retired,” Naomi says. “They’re all part of our team.”

Something to celebrate

In 2013 HFS celebrated its 25th year with a show of recycled furniture and household goods, creating a pop-up silver room that was exhibited in Hastings, St Leonards and Bexhill, alongside artwork by the public and a ‘furniture challenge’ for local professional artists whereby they chose items of furniture from the HFS stores to transform into works of art.

The value of HFS’ work – the difference it makes – has been regularly acknowledged with awards over the years. The latest was in December, when it won the BBC Sussex and Surrey Community Heroes award in the social enterprise category. “It was fantastic to win this regional award after being nominated by a member of the public, and to bring it back to show our team in Hastings and Bexhill that all their hard work all year is recognised and supported,” Naomi says.

Given its important social function, it is perhaps not surprising to find that HFS’ patron is the combative comedian and campaigner Mark Thomas, who was impressed when he first visited the Bexhill store in 2008 and has done a couple of fund-raisers, including one at the De La Warr last summer. As Mark aptly put it, “HFS is changing the world – one chair at a time!”

The HFS team - most of it - gathers on the beach to celebrate BBC Sussex and Surrey's Community Heroes award. Chief executive Naomi Ridley is fourth from right in the front row.

HFS website.

All photos courtesy HFS.

 

Posted 12:34 Tuesday, Dec 31, 2013 In: Home Ground

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