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The Old Toilets (public) toilets at Harold Place - demolished to make way for the construction of an “iconic” private restaurant

The old (public) toilets at Harold Place – demolished to make way for the construction of an “iconic” (commercial) restaurant

What does gentrification really mean?

In his final interview Michael Madden: painter, sculptor, restorer and environmental campaigner talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about the politics of gentrification in Hastings and beyond.

CM. Michael, you and Sandy gave a lovely goodbye party in the White Rock in late November, and after ten years of living in Hastings, you left in December. How did you feel the town had changed in your time here?

MM. Like many beautiful old towns, cities and villages, the Old Town looks the same but has been gentrified, while homeless numbers have risen around it. I got to know it in the early nineties, and loved it. But that was before it was “on the property map”, which happened after articles appeared in the Guardian and the Telegraph, causing a mass influx.

We came down as DFLs, partly to escape the gentrification of London. We never wanted to ‘make it big’ in Hastings or change it. But tv programmes like Grand Designs have led some people to embark on grand projects, who do not necessarily understand the importance of architectural history. Some have transformed their interiors brilliantly, but many old interiors have been ‘boutiqued’ or had their period details removed. This is also evident in some of the pubs. For instance, I thought the Stag was perfect before Stag-themed objects and designs were applied to its interior. I think the listing system is unfit for purpose.

Of course, this reflects a national trend. For instance, Folkestone’s seafront and harbour arm have been gentrified. And the architectural chaos of London is another aspect of Britain’s changed politics and planning policies, which have turned from civic/public provision towards private. Get-rich-quick developers have transformed the capital into a city of cranes, erecting buildings to last only thirty years. There’s no civic pride or aesthetic cohesion: architecture as a profit sheet. The giant corporate structures are gimmicky and, crass: the Shavers, Gherkins and Cheese-graters. Hi-rise apartments blocks have also ruined areas outside the centre, causing disorientation to locals. This is reflected in East Sussex, where new builds are often mundane, box-style architecture – not Modernist, but cheap and easy to make like the £IM+ places on Pett Level beach. The worst of it is that the construction workers who build them can’t afford anything remotely like them. Anyone who speaks out and says this is a decline of civilizational quality or that we are losing our historical memory is labeled an elitist or a nostalgist. The real elitists are the ones driving property inequality: politicians. Construction produces more carbon than cars and should never be the motor of any contemporary economy.

CM: House prices have gone up a lot here, as they have elsewhere. Has that changed the community?

MM: People who replace locals are often wealthier and also more aspirational. They often want more ‘creative’ lives and some obsess over ‘artisan’ food etc. The great American planning critic, Jane Jacobs, described gentrification as a form of social decay; it’s also a form of social cleansing. Recent Governments have claimed that an art gallery can ‘regenerate’ a poor seaside town – wrong again. Visual ‘Art’ today also reflects this changed politics, focused as it is on individual ‘journeys’, rather than on collective projects that are of benefit to all.

CM: Do you think Brexit entrenched the town’s problems or alleviated them?

MM: I think it’s entrenched everyone’s problems, besides a rich elite. We were shocked when Hastings voted 54% for it. It is a retirement area and not ethnically diverse. London voted 60% against, and in some a 70%. We thought the country had committed economic suicide. Brexit was the impossible dream of older generation Little Englanders, but also of the white working-class who shouted “We will not be replaced!” But Johnson lied and has failed to deliver on his promise of lowering energy prices and on VAT. The price of everything is spiraling and there’s VAT on top. Brexit is a causal factor behind all this, yet news reporters never mention the fact. Delayed Brexit import checks add to the cost of imported goods. Energy prices are going through the roof. The Covid pandemic has helped the ‘government’ to hide the Brexit damage.

Some pundits claim that the UK is still the 6th richest nation on Earth. But by another measure it’s the 9th richest and in terms of GDP per capita, it’s 20th or 27th: https://fullfact.org/economy/uk-sixth-or-ninth-richest-country/ – maybe even 29th. Those who thought they’d “got their country back” seemed blind to the fact that it had already been sold off, especially by Tories – starting in, when Thatcher sold off council homes. In that year the UK was less unequal than it’s ever been, before or since. The Internet now adds to the lies, as Britain changes into a virtual culture, where spectacle replaces form. Antisocial forums, online porn, corporate and private greed and political lying are destroying it. It’s no longer a real democracy.

CM: What do you feel holds the community together here in the Old Town?

MM: Probably its beauty and its pubs. But I think it’s more cliquey now and was friendlier decades ago. I think property wealth changes people and places for the worst. It is helping to create a new class-based society, but not one based on merit. You have to be in with the in crowd today. All that counts is what you have, not what you are or what you can do. Gentrification is a manifestation of a privatized country. When the property bubble bursts we’ll see how poor we really are. We’d gladly give up our house and rent again if any political leader pledged to reverse the post Thatcher changes.

CM: Hastings has had a predominately Labour Council for many years. Do you think that is good for the town? What effect has it had?

MM: Although I’ve always voted Labour at general elections, it’s bad to have any local council dominated by a party. I became cynical about HBC’s Labour dominance during the Save Ecclesbourne Glen campaign.

Ecclesbourne GlenEcclesbourne Glen

Ecclesbourne Glen

We went to them for help and presented our concerns genuinely after their negligence had allowed a SSSI to be irreparably damaged. Since then HBC has closed museums and toilets and turned them into coffee-bars and restaurants. They were in favour of a “luxury” housing development in Rock a Nore and are developer-friendly. Council Tax is higher than London, but you get less for it. HBC didn’t even sweep the pathway down from High Wickham to the Old Town. The street had only one working streetlamp. They are legally obliged to hold a record of its planning officers’ membership of secret organisations (in its Declaration Reporting Books), but their legal officer says that they don’t keep them. John Hodges an honest and brave Labour councilor. He is sadly missed. I think the stress of trying to represent his ward’s interests but always facing the council’s inertia may have hastened his untimely death. I suffered a stroke a few years, which I believe was partly caused by the stress of trying to “hold us (HBC) to account”. Perhaps Julia Hilton and the Greens can help to balance HBC. But maybe the whole system should go.

CM: Do you feel there is a viable political alternative locally and/or nationally?

MM: Maybe democracy? I think the Tories’ secret mission is to privatise the NHS, and the pandemic has helped them. A 2019 film The NHS Heist showed a document from the Conservative Research Department, dated 30 June 1977, stating that “Denationalisation should not be attempted by frontal attack, but by a policy of preparation for return to the private sector by stealth”. It was proof that they planned this before Thatcher got in. Nationalised utilities and transport networks were good for ordinary people because they kept prices down. The post-war Attlee government did many good things but also a few bad ones. This article explains what’s wrong with the planning system that survives from those times: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/apr/11/why-are-we-so-bad-at-planning-cities#comment-127979814. His MPs tended to live in nice period houses, yet legislated to build unitary hi-rise council housing for ‘the people’. They bulldozed so many prosperous working class Georgian and Victorian areas, which were not all slums. So they initiated aesthetic apartheid that continues today.

If people did not fantasize about what they believe, there might be a chance of change. But too many believe the Press’s lies and there’s now total confusion over terms like ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ wing. Thatcher dismissed the post-war ideas of Beveridge and Keynes (both Liberals) as “socialist” when they were just socially democratic. And Baronet Attlee’s own wife said he’d never really been a socialist: “Have you dear?” Attlee was a monarchist and a social democrat who called himself a socialist as does Sir Keir Starmer, who is worth over £7M, and belongs to the Trilateral Commission: a group that believes that the electorate has too much democracy. Some Labour councilors also seem to believe they are socialists, but they’re not even democratic. The majority of manual workers have never wanted socialism. Social democracy would be an election winner, but it is never sold to the electorate well enough.

CM: Do you have any other suggestions for what might help Hastings?

MM: Yes. Build Back Better and Level Up – but properly. The Green way forward is to avoid construction projects and to re-use what the town has. Instead of creating cheap buildings, use real, apprentice-trained artisans to restore quality buildings for rent. I think Hastings needs a better local economy than pubs, property development, tourism/dressing up events and a 28 boat fishing fleet. Russell Hall’s idea of a mussel farm (backed by Amber Rudd) would probably have been unpopular with fishermen, but would have created far more local jobs and income. Unfortunately, it’s impossible now, since we left Europe. The fishing industry only contributed 0.03% to the UK economy at the time of Brexit. I understand why fishermen and construction workers voted for Brexit. But their real enemies are their own political class – not Europeans.

Here are a few ideas that could be tried:

1. Save the White Rock Theatre from demolition by getting it listed: its lovely roundels were modeled by the great English sculptor Gilbert Bayes . They make it worth preserving, as do its 1066 seats (perhaps it could be enlarged at the back though).

Gilbert Bayes Roundel

Gilbert Bayes Roundel

2. Create a restoration industry with real apprenticeships, taught and led by experts who live locally. Maybe people like Chris Benton – a great builder, Melissa White, a great muralist and Chris Barrett, a great cabinet-maker would be prepared to help.

3. Preserve all AONBs and SSSIs. As John Hodges said The Country Park is Hastings’ “Jewel in the Crown”.

But I can’t see any of this happening under Hastings Borough Council. So I think it might be time for taxpayers to form a people’s assembly. There are many good people trying to change things, but they all want their own vision, when they really need to unite under a single banner and replace the council.

CM: Thanks Michael.

MM: Thanks for asking Chandra and good luck.

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Posted 15:56 Tuesday, Feb 1, 2022 In: Home Ground

1 Comment

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  1. DAR

    A pretty good analysis, on the whole.

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Feb 3, 2022 @ 13:38

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