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The commemorative sign from the opening by Tony Benn is still on the wall in the meeting room.

Arson at the Labour Party building: a personal response

Hastings Online Times writer Erica Smith gives her reaction to the fire at the Hastings and Rye Labour Party office.

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The facade after the fire – not so different as to how it looked before the fire, plus smoke damage.

Just over a week has passed since I heard about the fire at the Ellen Draper Centre – the name of the building at 84 Bohemia Road where Hastings and Rye Labour Party is based. The news seriously upset me – not just because I’m a member of the Labour Party – but because since last May I have run my graphic design business from the top floor. I was also surprised at some of the nasty comments on Facebook which is why I wanted to clear up any misconceptions.

On the evening of Tuesday 10 March, an intruder entered the Ellen Draper Centre whilst a meeting was in progress in the ground floor meeting room. My studio on the second floor was turned upside down and an act of arson was committed in the front room on the first floor. This happened whilst the building was occupied – which is what upsets me most of all.

I can’t say too much about the incident because it is still under investigation by the police, but I’d like to quash a few rumours.

This was not ‘an insurance job’ – it upsets me that anyone could even think that, but that thought has crossed the mind of at least one person.

Some people on social media reacted to the news of the fire by making negative comments about the state of the building. I would like to use this opportunity to give a bit of history about the building.

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Ellen Draper, the woman the Labour Party building is named after.

At some point in the early 1990s, a woman called Ellen Draper left her home to the local Labour Party in her will. The house was sold and an old pub in Bohemia Road purchased as a home for the local Labour Party. It was opened by Tony Benn in 1994. Whilst Michael Foster was our MP, the building was also home to his constituency offices. The little room on the top floor which became my studio was once his office. The photo of Ellen Draper (left) and the sign are still in the ground floor meeting room.

After the 2010 election, the building suffered from not having income from housing the MP’s office anymore. After the 2015 election it definitely went in to a decline. However, as local Labour Party membership increased in the build up to the 2017 election, the building has been used more. In September 2018, after considerable discussion and research, Labour Party members had a vote on whether the building should be kept or sold. It was decided to keep it and return it to being an asset rather than a liability. One of the benefits of the building is that there is totally flat access to the ground floor meeting room – that’s great for wheelchair users and is a rare feature in this hilly town.

A Buildings Team had already been set up and had started addressing issues like the central heating and the overgrown backyard. With the will of the members, a rolling “five-year plan” was instigated – the first step was to address minor leaks in the roof, get the rooms on the first and second floors cleared and give them a lick of paint, and get a new central heating system and fire alarm system installed.

In May 2019 I took on a licence to use the little room on the top floor for my graphic design business, and other rooms were licensed out to artists at affordable rents. Because the whole building started being used, the horrible damp smell disappeared. In August 2019 we redecorated the meeting room and fitted new roller blinds. In September 2019 we held an exhibition during Coastal Currents.

In one year, thanks to an enormous amount of volunteer time from a small group of people, fundraising events – and generous donations from a few individuals for the work that had to be done by professionals – we turned the building around.

Of course, it might not have looked like any work had been done from the outside… As a graphic designer I am acutely aware of the unsophisticated signage – and I know the facade gets grubby because it is so close to busy Bohemia Road.

But rest assured, the Ellen Draper Centre had turned a corner… and thanks to a few moments of totally anti-social and dangerous behaviour we are back – not to Square One, but to Square Minus Four.

If anyone is saddened by this story, or is upset by looking at the unglamorous facade of the EDC when their car is sat at the junction with Newgate Road, you are very welcome to make a donation towards the renovation of the building by following this link.

 

 

 

Posted 10:16 Thursday, Mar 19, 2020 In: Point of View

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