Local election battle over Hastings seafront

Hastings Pier after the fire
Image caption Up to 95% of Hastings' Victorian pier was damaged by the fire in October 2010.

As voters in Hastings head to the polls on Thursday to vote in the local elections, it is the East Sussex town's economy which is expected to be at the forefront of their minds.

For some the seaside town's burnt-out pier has come to symbolise its decline.

Hastings has struggled during the recession and all three of the main parties agree that regeneration is crucial.

It is one of four areas in Sussex where elections are being held this year, with people in Adur, Crawley and Worthing also voting.

But the town is expected to be the closet fought, with the Labour-controlled council currently holding just three seats more than the Conservatives.

Efforts to regenerate the seafront have proved controversial.

The Jerwood, a £4m art gallery which overlooks the seafront, opened this year despite protests that it was out of place on the shingle beach.

And the council has issued a compulsory purchase order to owners of Hastings Pier, which was partially destroyed by fire in 2010, in order to take it over and pass control to a trust.

'Seafront shop window'

Council leader Jeremy Birch said regeneration of the seafront was key to bringing new businesses and jobs to the town.

"The shop window of Hastings is the seafront," he said. "If the shop window looks drab, who will want to invest here and employ people?"

He said if the council was successful in its attempt to take over the pier, then the town's image could be reversed.

"If we're not successful with the pier plan then the structure could just continue to decay," he said.

"But if we can regenerate it we can stop the national press headlines about how the derelict pier is symptomatic of the decline of seaside towns in general."

The leader of the Conservative group, Matthew Lock, said the state of the derelict pier could reflect badly on the town.

However, he criticised the Labour administration for bringing a greater sense of "negativity" to the town's portrayal, something which Mr Birch denied.

Mr Lock said: "They complain about us being one of the most deprived areas with high unemployment - they concentrate on the negative and not the positive things.

"This has an effect on the town's morale.

"There are fantastic things happening - we should be singing the praises of Hastings as it's the place to be."

'Wonderful seafront'

Mr Lock said the Conservatives would only need to take a couple seats off Labour to take overall control.

Image caption Some opponents of the £4m Jerwood Gallery call it the 'Berlin Wall'

And he predicted the Liberal Democrats, who currently have just one councillor, could be completely "wiped out" from the council.

However, Nick Perry, who is standing as a Liberal Democrat candidate in the election, said Hastings politics was particularly volatile.

"The Tories should recall that in 1996 and 1997 there was no Conservative group at all on the council," he said.

He also stated that regeneration of the seafront was also "absolutely crucial" to Hastings, endorsing more pop-up food vendors and local artists selling their work.

"Regeneration is the one thing that matters more than anything else in terms of getting the economy of Hastings back on its feet again," he said.

"One of my main concerns is that the council is not making as much use of the wonderful seafront that it could be."

And one of the Green Party's candidates, Maya Evans, said her party would like to introduce a London-style bike hire scheme.

"Public transport is our number one issue," she said.

"We want people out of cars, it's more environmentally friendly, and it's more economic too as it saves jobs."

Nick Prince, who is the south-east regional co-ordinator for the British National Party (BNP) and is also standing for election in Hastings, said the town should make more of its past.

"Our focus on improving Hastings is to promote its history, to encourage people for day trips and longer holidays," he said.

"We need to bring back seaside values and attractions that you would expect in the glory days of the British seaside resort."

The result of the election is due to be announced at about 03:00 BST on Friday.

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