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Jess Steele:
commoner at large

Jess Steele OBE is a community entrepreneur and bold innovator who has spent over thirty years working with communities, creatives, governments, funders, corporates and academics to transform neighbourhoods. Here she introduces us to the wonderful people, places and history of Hastings Commons, a community-led regeneration programme she spearheaded in her hometown, with new models of ownership, management and collaboration that inspire people far beyond the local area.

Made by Jo Barratt with Gemma Mortensen, Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


I’m George, I’m a volunteer, I call myself an anchor here. I’m here as a general dogsbody… 

This is the common room. Its most important role is as a public living room. And it’s been open since September 2021, five days a week, 12 till 4.

Toys are available for children. You have plenty of nice, easy chairs for people to sit down, have a chit chat. 

The guy who owned it had been here 30 years, and he wanted to retire, middle of lockdown, couldn’t sell his sofas, couldn’t, couldn’t sell the place. So we took a development lease, and the sofas. And so this is one of our latest buildings. 

…on a Friday or Saturday they can bring their gadgets to have it repaired by a lady who knows a lot about electrical things to be repaired…

For a long time people kept coming in and saying, asking to buy a sofa or a carpet. So many people, we’re so coded in the way we think everything is. As if it has to be like that. 

The whole idea is that it’s free, warm space where people are alongside each other. And it’s interesting to me how quickly people move to service provision models which are all about, you know, we are here to help you. That is not what this is supposed to be. And this is a very powerful concept that, like so many of the things we’re involved in, it’s really simple and really human, but it’s actually really hard and quite radical, especially in the world as we find it.  

We’re talking about, within the Hastings Commons, a scale that ranges from just sitting about next to each other to spending millions and millions of pounds renovating extremely complex buildings. You have to do both, and one of the biggest failures of regeneration in all my lifetime that I’ve been watching it has been the separation of the social and the physical in regeneration. So the concept that you can do physical regeneration without social, and to some extent the other way around too, I just think is false.  It’s not the only problem, but it’s at the heart of the problems that we’ve had with regeneration for three decades. 

I’m Jess Steele. I have lived in Hastings for 20 years. Before that I was in Deptford in South East London. My whole life I’ve been an independent community entrepreneur and very much a watcher of regeneration. 

I’ve always said that Hastings has been the best place in the world. The best balance of cost of living and quality of life. And often you find those places because they’re neglected for some reason. Because no one else has noticed. And they’re all threatened with what you might call gentrification. And that is to some extent what has happened to Hastings. 

Many people will be familiar with Hastings because of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. We do have a long history. It was a little fishing port for a while, you know, and then it grew over the years and it’s changed in so many different ways. It has a deep history, and that history is kind of engraved on it in the sense of lots and lots of legacy assets. So we have, Hastings Pier is an obvious one, but we also have theatres and all kinds of lifts, funiculars, all sorts of legacies that are left behind from a seaside heritage.

It has been a very poor place for perhaps more than a hundred years now. So Hastings suffers enormous challenges, but it does so with enormous grace. It has, um, huge assets in it, both physical and more importantly, people, and community spirit. We have a packed program of festivals, most of which are Hastings only festivals, we call it the dressing up town. If you’ve got an excuse to dress up, people in Hastings will dress up. If you move to Hastings, you have to bring a dressing up box, you know, or you will build one while you’re here. It’s a fun place. And as I say, it’s got a lot of strong community spirit and solidarity. It’s a community of sanctuary. It’s the sort of place that, you can be yourself. You can be anyone. 

But, it is also the end of the line. It is at the end of a absolutely rubbish train service. And a comically poor road, the A21. And I, a lot of politicians have always argued, we need, you know, we need high speed trains and we need a motorway. And ever since I got here, I’ve thought, no, no, no, no. Because the neglect is a blessing in disguise. And, here the blessing was that that diversity and that affordability of property, you know, places, places to live and work and start businesses, do art, play music, were all possible. 

So now it’s hugely threatened. The rents, the rents and the house prices have just gone up exponentially. And that is because, in a way, COVID blew the only fence we had down. The fence of the stigma.

Shelley, come and say hello, you’ve got to talk to Shelley…

This is the worst thing in the world.  This is a pink flamingo with a slightly weird wobbly neck. It’s probably the most ghastly thing I’ve ever seen so I bought it for my friend’s birthday. It’s impossible to describe, so just imagine your worst nightmare… 

I help run the Hastings Library of Things, which is based in the commons. And I’ve just popped in on my lunch break actually. And then got distracted with 3D printing.  

People see the value of it quite quickly. Although they often quite say, what happens if something gets broken? I bet stuff doesn’t get given back. We go, actually, nothing gets broken, it always gets given back.

 What’s the most over borrowed? 

Oh, it’s just too boring, but it’s a carpet cleaner. It’s just, it’s just so, so boring.  I’d like to say it was the candyfloss machine, but it’s not. Thank you. Good luck with the flamingo. God… 

I’ve always been very much a person, a sort of person of propositions. What shall we do about that? And so I’ve set up many community enterprises over the years and I’ve been involved in many community campaigns. My first campaign in Hastings was to do with Hastings Pier. Long, long process. A lot of lessons out of that. One of them was to, that we would need to focus on the neighbourhood. Not just the pier as a sort of historic artefact, but the whole neighbourhood, and that was always at the heart of the pier campaign. Once the pier was saved and we achieved compulsory purchase and 14 and a half million pounds to restore it with, I personally, and many of us, moved on to look at the rest of the neighbourhood. 

And the neighbourhood at the time basically was being massively dragged down by the Observer building, which had closed down in 1984. Great big print factory, which had employed many, many people and then had closed. And there’d been four decades of dereliction, with multiple owners, one after another, none of them ever doing any repairs, but somehow managing to make money out of it, mainly by getting planning permissions. 

So the Observer Building, is a kind of epitome of how terrible our systems are. It rotted away, dragging down the neighbourhood, and so, after the pier, it was the most important thing to focus on. So we tried to buy the Observer building in 2014, but we lost out, it went to auction and we lost out to a private buyer. But meanwhile, in parallel, we’d been thinking about buying the building next door, which was a 1970 nine-storey office block. Very run down, almost nobody left in it. And it’s, that’s what we ended up buying. And the we, then, was my company, Jericho Road Solutions, uh, which I’d set up in 2012 to try and help local leaders around the country to do neighbourhood regeneration, to support them in doing that.  And always with the ambition that any money that I made out of it, I would invest in projects in Hastings. So, Jericho Road Solutions, I was working alongside Meanwhile Space, a community interest company, who take in, take property that is paused in its process for some reason, so it’s empty. They take that into uses that are good for the local community. So the two of us came together and bought what’s now Rock House, this nine-storey office block. 

And we knew right from the start that this wasn’t something that we just wanted to do ourselves. We wanted to do it in a way that it would always live with the community. It would stay, it would be sustainable long after we were gone. And so immediately we granted 10% of the shares in the company we set up together to a local community group. And over time that’s turned into one third of the shares now are held by the Hastings Commons Community Land Trust. 

This area of Hastings was underwater a thousand years ago, it was part of the sea. And then over the years it became sea beach, it silted up and became beach. And then people began to move on to that site. And because it had been underwater, nobody owned it. So they didn’t pay any rent to anybody, and it became quite an independent and very quirky and interesting group of people. By the 1820s, there were a thousand people living and working on the space. And then in the 1820s, there was this royal commission to decide who owned the space. Partly, apparently, because they kept falling out with each other and arguing, and therefore becoming known to the authorities. So there was this commission, and it was decided, surprise, surprise, that the Crown owned the sea beach. And so the Crown surveyors turned up and started measuring everything and sending out rent bills. And so that group of people were displaced. 

Now the legend goes that they raised the American flag, the Stars and Stripes, and declared independence. Declared themselves the 24th state of the United States of America. And that brilliant, fascinating story, that legend, it’s a very powerful… The serious side of it is that it was a battle for land that they lost, and they were dispersed. The important thing is that that’s a founding story for us. It’s a founding story about, let’s not do it like that then. Let’s not let that happen. And that’s why, one of the reasons why freehold is so important, because nobody can take it off you. And obviously people can take it off you if you fail. You have to be extremely careful to protect it, and that’s why the Community Land Trust is so important.

This is Rock House. This is the building we bought first. And, uh, it goes up and up and up, so it’s nine storeys altogether. This area down here at the bottom of these steps, this is the America Grounds, this was where it was all sea, where that church is, that whole area…

So we bought Rock House in 2014, we started to do the work. It took a long time because when we first bought it we had this report that said it would cost 1.9 million to convert. We had £80,000 in the bank. So we got on with it slowly and did a phased organic development approach. That’s what we call it looking back. At the time we just scrabbled and tried to do our very best to do one floor at a time. 

During that time, we realised collectively and we had meetings locally to talk about gentrification of Hastings. And so we had a series of meetings asking, is gentrification happening? If it is, is it a problem? And if it is a problem, is there anything we can do? And the conclusion was, yes, it was coming. Yes it would be a problem, and it would change Hastings, and this area particularly, forever and potentially for the worst. And what could we do? There was one thing we could do which was to bring more property into community ownership and cap the rents forever. So we’d already started doing that but this clarified it and made it much more a community effort rather than just a few kind of social entrepreneurs saying this would be a good thing. It needs to be, it needs a community land trust, it needs a long term organisation that will outlast us all and so that was when the community land trust was born.

It became more and more that like the different organisations were the tools in the box to get the shared job done. And the shared job was, bring difficult and derelict properties back from the brink, bring them into community ownership, renovate them, let them on capped rents and manage them well forever.  And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. We’ve brought 8000 square metres of property, a very weird range of property – we’ve got some caves, we’ve got a tumble down stable, we’ve got a whole load of vaults, we’ve got a big roof terrace, and this wonderful space…

We’ll go round the back cause this alley round the back is interesting cause it wasn’t under water, it was a cliff. This land has never been owned by anybody, and it’s never been adopted by a public authority. But the buildings either side, the Observer building itself, the print works, the library, they all have in their title deeds rights and responsibilities over 12 feet of the roadway. And you can see the road maybe is 15 feet wide? So from either side, those are overlapping rights and responsibilities. And that has been fascinating because for many, many years the old idea of the tragedy of the commons was playing out here. People were taking their rights and not their responsibilities. And what we’re doing is converting that away from that tragedy into the genuine positive commons, where people are looking out for the place and they’re looking out for each other, and they’re giving according to their ability and taking according to their need. So this is our scaffolding. This will eventually go, hopefully by Christmas.

There’s this kind of farming of dereliction. This is a phrase that really captures my imagination and makes me think exactly of what’s happening in these places, is that dereliction is farmed both by the private sector through getting planning permissions and selling on, and never bothering with any kind of repair. And by the public sector, by allowing dereliction to form, which then turns you into part of, you know, a regeneration zone. Both of them are behaving the same way, disinvestment and investment being two sides of the same coin, and maintenance being nowhere to be seen. The basic idea of just donning the fabric, maintaining what we’ve got, making it better bit by bit. That is missing from our discourse. And every time government comes out with another sets of billions of pounds, they are talking about shiny new stuff, rather than gentle, repair and piecemeal approaches. This is a much more feminised approach to regeneration. And I think it’s interesting that most of the people involved in this work, not most of the people involved, but a lot of the leadership, is female. For the first time in my experience of regeneration, which is long. 

Hello Sarah, So we’ve been having a wander around, we’ve been in the common room and we’ve been having a bit of a wander around. We’ll go up to the roof after this, well done, but yeah, so, so Cabaret Mechanical, do you want to say?