Hastings Battleaxe takes a look…. at the Hastings Pier saga

Now don’t get too excited. Battleaxe is not going to write anything that could lead to her being plastered across the tabloids again – have had enough trouble with that already this year. I’ll stick to the facts. Whatever you may think of the situation, seeing the sale of the poor Pier to Sheik Abid Gulzar, owner of Eastbourne Pier, is a real blow to efforts to foster community involvement in Hastings by keeping the Pier as a community asset.

     Battleaxe and Philosopher were both shareholders in the original Hastings Pier Charity, and contributed to the Friends of Hastings Pier (FOHP) Crowdfunder campaign to purchase the Pier, so in that sense I am biased, but it is a fact that £14 million of lottery money, investment by the community and by the local authority, has been virtually given away – lost to private hands.
     The administrators allowed Gulzar to buy the Pier for £50,000, despite the fact that there was another community-led bid on the table which could have been made to work.  Gulzar has said on TV tonight that he has ‘no five or ten year plan’.
    We just missed being able to visit the original Pier when we first came to Hastings in 2008 – it was closed just before we arrived. By the time we moved here permanently in 2011, the Pier had been ravaged by fire, and plans were afoot to restore it.  Battleaxe quickly became frustrated by the slow process – see this post from February 2012.  We’d only been here three months….. Still, by 2014, restoration was well under way, and by 2016, Battleaxe and philosopher were attending the official opening.

Restoration under way
A damp opening day in 2016 – was this a portent of things to come?

    It was clear from early on that the Pier, lovely though it was, was never going to make money, and that sadly, the Hastings Pier Charity lacked a business plan to progress its development  beyond the opening phase. The maintenance and insurance costs of a Victorian Pier are colossal. Variable weather made open-air events precarious, there were insufficient attractions to entertain visitors, and little opportunity to extract money from them. Couldn’t they at least have charged 50p for entry? We took our visitors to the Pier many times, and often walked there ourselves, admiring the view, taking  photos, enjoying the fabulous space on the head of the Pier, often without spending any money at all. The catering was pretty shambolic as well….  Being brutal, the charity did not have the necessary business expertise.

A brief moment back in 2016 when you could get a decent evening meal….
A rough day
What a view….

    In 2017 the Pier won the prestigious Stirling Prize for Architecture.
Here is the celebratory article by the architects, DrMM, in the ‘Architect’s Journal’,
showing the space – looking beautiful, but so empty…. How true. Architects love minimal and empty, but it won’t bring the money in.  The detractors of Hastings Pier, of whom there are many, refer to it as ‘The Plank’…. By the time the charity put a business plan together, it was too little too late, the charity collapsed, and the Pier went into administration in November 2017. This meant that our shares, and those of the rest of the sahreholders, were lost – worthless.

Wonderful – but empty.

    Since then, the administrators have been seeking a buyer. The newly constituted FOHP group put a plan together, with a community crowd-funding initiative, a ‘private partner’, the identity of whom was never revealed, and some speculative collaboration with the mysterious Hastings Foreshore Trust, who were not even due to meet to discuss the bid until later this month. Unfortunately, it is possible that the bid might not have been strong enough to convince the adminsitrators. £300,000 of the Crowdfunding sum raised was in the form of an interest-free loan, which would only have added to the level of debt. However, the administrators and the Heritage Lottery Fund had agreed to keep the Pier running until November this year, and FOHP could have been given a more time and more support to make their bid genuinely viable and to keep the Pier in public ownership as the ‘People’s Pier’… The Pier is too important to be disposed of without maximum consideration and consultation.
See Note below….
   The deadline for bids to be submitted was actually April, but FOHP continued with their planning and fundraising in the belief that the administrators would give them more time. The Pier was losing £50,000 a month, and clearly, the administrators wanted it off their hands…. However, there has been a worrying lack of transparency in the process.
   On Friday evening it was confirmed that the Pier was sold to Mr Gulzar. As ‘shareholders’, Battleaxe and Philosopher received emails telling us this at 21.20pm (telling us, we were never consulted). The Pier staff were told at the same time, despite the fact that the deal had been agreed earlier in the day – and there is some evidence that the sale to Gulzar had been agreed well before that. Many here are very unhappy. See today’s article from the Guardian. Peter Chowney, the leader of Hastings Borough Council, tells us that he is ‘angry’ and knew nothing about the sale either. So why didn’t he find out from Gulzar beforehand?
   So, who is Sheik Abid Gulzar?  He is 72, an Indian Muslim who came to Britain aged 19. Flamboyant, addicted to ‘gold’, he owns several hotels as well as Eastbourne Pier. Without  substantial and painstaking research, it is impossible to tell how much money he actually has. Like many businessmen he manages his affairs through a number of private companies which come and go, rarely filing any public accounts.  Such accounts as are filed are totally opaque. He seems to have scant regard for planning legislation – acting first, and facing the music afterwards…. not good.

Mr Gulzar on Eastbourne Pier
His golden car

   Looking at the TripAdviser reviews for his hotels, the predominant theme is ‘run-down, dated and in need of refurbishment’. The management response to these reviews is invariably that investment and refurbishment is planned, imminent, due, expected any time etc….  This does not bode well. Being as charitable as possible, it may mean that his hotels deliberately aim low, directed at a certain market. The hotel business is tough….. but making a pier profitable is even tougher.
   Gulzar took over Eastbourne Pier in 2015.  Here is an article about it.  Despite much talk about ambitious plans for the Pier, not much has actually happened – apart from annoying the locals by banning dogs, fishing and picnics… Again, this does not bode well for Hastings.
   So is he a Sheik? In the way that the public generally thinks (a mega-rich Arab cheftain, probably from Dubai or Saudi Arabia) no, he isn’t. Is his name fake? He says it is a family name, and indeed, Muslim Indian/Pakistani men can have Sheik as a surname, or as a given name. (Have known one from work in Birmingham).  Clearly, his ‘gold lions’ approach to decor arouses strong feelings….  some of that may be down to simple rac**m….
   Whoever he is, and whatever is the truth behind his claims, the fact is that our Pier has passed into private hands, and, pretty much, Gulzar can do what he likes with it. After a mere two years, he can resell it to whoever he wants….
   There are those in Hastings who welcome the sale, but many who are violently against it.  
   Battleaxe knows many local people are very upset, but abusing Gulzar, making unfounded accusations of corruption and threatening to boycott the Pier are not going to help anyone or anything.
   We can slag off the administrators with considerable justification, but they had to do something, and they presumably chose what they thought, at the time, was the most hopeful of two poor alternatives.
    By the way, who is Lord Brett Maclean?  He was pictured arriving with Gulzar last night, and appears to be his friend. He seems to be on the board of many charities in Hastings, including Ore Community Centre. One could dismiss him as a harmless eccentric who loves publicity, and I hope that’s all he is. He apparently changed his name to ‘Lord’ by deed-poll, despite his claims that he received his ‘hereditary’ peerage as a ‘gift’. Sorry Brett, that never happened.  He seems to make money selling sunglasses on-line…..
    Ah, Hastings is never dull…..

Note:  Jess Steele from FOHP has posted two pieces explaining the finances behind the FOHP bid, and the process followed, including her own thoughts. Both are worth reading.

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