'Everything’s against you.' Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

April 10, 2024   6 mins

At the eastern end of the seafront in Hastings, East Sussex, a jumble of wooden shacks marks the last redoubt of a centuries-old fishing community. This is still apparently Europe’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet, though it consists of barely 10 vessels. On a bright morning in late March, as the gulls screech and a cold wind blows in from the sea, there is almost no one to be seen here. It is inside one of the huts, which double as seafood stalls during the tourist season, that I find Ben Griffin, a 43-year-old fisherman and lifelong Hastings resident. His prognosis for the future is bleak.

“Everything’s against you,” is Griffin’s refrain. That includes the weather, which was too rough for fishing over the winter, and the changing climate, which is dislocating the seasonal patterns of the ocean. It also includes the 2020 Brexit Agreement, thanks to which, Griffin says, industrial fleets from the continent have been “raping” the fish stocks in the Channel, including the sole, plaice and turbot they fish along the south coast (if you order cod here, it isn’t caught locally). Meanwhile, fishermen face a mounting bureaucratic workload of catch reports, quotas and tracking devices. Griffin has been fishing from this beach since he was eight years old, and his wife’s family has been doing so for three centuries. But he fears that this trade is now dying. “If we can’t turn it round by the end of this summer, then I don’t know what our future holds.”

Griffin feels betrayed, above all by the local authorities in Hastings. “Our council won’t do anything to help us out as fishermen,” he says. Since 2012, the fishermen have shared their part of the shore with a contemporary art gallery, part of the council’s efforts to regenerate the town through cultural tourism. However, Griffin says that the gallery is “targeting a different type of people. It’s not bringing trade to the beach.” In fact, it displaced a coach park that used to deliver tourists to the fishermen’s stalls.

But not only has the town failed to promote fishing as part of its historic identity; locals are now being priced out of housing, thanks to an influx of creatives and remote-working professionals from London — just what the town’s regeneration strategy called for. Unable to find a house big enough for their family, Griffin and his wife now sleep in their front room. Even with a full-time wage, he says, his children won’t be able to move out and find a home of their own. “Your kids have got no hope.”

“Our council won’t do anything to help us out as fishermen.”

Over the past year, Hastings has become a case study for the consequences of Britain’s housing shortage. The council made headlines with claims that it will soon be spending a third of its entire budget on temporary accommodation, as poor residents are squeezed off the bottom rungs of the rental market. Like many of England’s financially stricken councils, it has started selling off assets, and has even asked people to offer up spare rooms and garden prefabs for the homeless.

But while this could be taken as evidence for the evils of gentrification and austerity, stories like that of the struggling fishermen suggest a more complicated picture. Problems peculiar to seaside Britain have left Hastings vulnerable even to positive change. Council-led efforts to reinvent the town have created winners and losers, addressing some social crises and worsening others. All of this raises thorny questions about the role of local government at a time when the welfare state is becoming increasingly threadbare.

Before the recent “down-from-London” wave, Hastings was a magnet for different kinds of migration. It was once a holiday destination, as its fine civic buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian eras testify. From the Seventies, however, it became a faded coastal town that offered cheap housing, informal work and a picturesque setting. Destitute and marginal people began to arrive from as far away as Liverpool and Manchester, while London councils sent benefits claimants here to be housed at lower cost. It was, in effect, a place for those who did not fit in elsewhere, and who had no social connections here either. “You would think you was in a foreign country” was Ben Griffin’s description of how some neighbourhoods had changed in his lifetime. Today, Hastings is among the poorest towns in the south of England, and among the highest in the UK in the proportion of people who have dropped out of the workforce due to sickness.

In the 2000s, various towns on the south-east coast looked to “culture-led regeneration” to escape this cycle of deprivation and dependency. Inspired by urban theorists such as Richard Florida, who was popular during the New Labour years, the idea was to invite a “creative class” to left-behind regions to make them a fashionable and attract investment. The East Sussex and Kent coastline could become Hackney-on-Sea.

When I first visited Margate, Folkestone and Hastings a decade ago, I found an almost colonial situation, with small groups of hipsters occupying arty enclaves in otherwise crumbling and impoverished townscapes. Today it’s evident that, in Hastings at least, the strategy has had some success. The historic Old Town has an almost Mediterranean atmosphere, with narrow lanes boasting beautiful old houses alongside restaurants, bakeries and boutiques. The town centre is also noticeably more affluent than in previous years, and the adjoining St Leonards area is now being rapidly gentrified.

The controversial question is how much the benefits of this regeneration are feeding through to the town as a whole. For those who own a home in the area, such as a Slovakian minicab driver I spoke to, safer neighbourhoods with higher property prices are obviously a good thing. In theory, some of the new wealth should find its way to the public coffers. The problem is that, wherever gentrification is adopted as a regeneration strategy, it requires the losers of the process to move on. Yet the rising numbers of homeless in Hastings, where there are now 500 households living in temporary accommodation, suggest that there is nowhere for them to go, perhaps because this was itself a gathering point for people who could not afford to live elsewhere.

A closer look at local housing policy shows the extent of the dilemma. According to Craig Ritchie, a chartered surveyor who has been valuing properties in Hastings for two decades, the council has in recent years tightened regulations to improve the quality and safety of the town’s apartments, especially its large stock of ageing bedsits. This has led to a lot of dank and dangerous properties being upgraded, but it has also put them beyond the means of the poorest residents. And it has added to the cocktail of pressures, including interest rates and tax disincentives, that is driving landlords out of the rental market altogether. One estate agent told me the biggest factor in the housing shortages was the drop in buy-to-let landlords.

Having watched the transformation of Hastings over the years, Ritchie is emphatically on the side of the council. It is absurd, in his view, to fault policies that have turned a troubled, run-down town into an increasingly pleasant and thriving one. “Rents are rising significantly and there’s a shortage of housing,” he admitted, “but the local authority has helped to make Hastings and St Leonards once again a wonderful, safe and characterful place to live.”

Some of the answers to Hastings’s problems are obvious. The town is wasting enormous sums of money renting temporary accommodation from private landlords, many of whom are now buying properties specifically to profit in this way. It is much less costly for councils to own the houses where they accommodate people. In Hastings, the local authority has increasingly been taking this approach, buying back some of the properties that have passed into private hands since the Thatcher government introduced Right to Buy in the Eighties.

More troubling are its impromptu funding arrangements. In the last few years, Hastings has been a beneficiary of a government “Towns Fund”, a “Long-Term Plan for Towns”, and most recently a “Homeless Accommodation Programme”. It isn’t exactly a mystery why this money keeps appearing; with a Conservative victory margin of just 7.5% at the 2019 election, Hastings and Rye is a swing seat. Likewise, Hastings goes into next month’s local elections with its council finely balanced between Conservative, Labour and Green contingents. But here as elsewhere, sporadic bungs cannot make up for the steep drop in central government funding since 2010, especially as councils face the growing financial burden of social care. Even Labour hasn’t committed to saving cash-strapped councils, presumably because there is no money to do so.

Speaking to Ben Griffin, it was evident that his sense of abandonment by the authorities was feeding his resentment at the changes in Hastings. He felt that his connection with the town’s heritage as a fisherman gave him a claim on material assistance. Instead, he was told that his irregular wages ruled him out of a council house, and last winter he had to rely on universal credit and his wife working longer hours.

It’s likely that similar frustrations will play out in British politics more generally in the coming years. Even if Labour wins the next election, the state’s weak financial position will continue to erode its ability to offer public services, especially at the local level. There will be a deepening of the three-way division between those who don’t need support, those who manage to get it and those in the middle who feel they have been unfairly denied it. The question of who is really deserving of help will only become more acute. Meanwhile, even more power will flow to Westminster as the source of grants that can provide temporary relief for local government. We have already seen these dynamics at work in the politics of levelling-up, as regions compete to show their deservingness or desperation for central funds. More often, of course, it will be party connections and electoral politics that actually determine where the money goes.

Luckily for Griffin, the fisherman’s life seems to have equipped him quite well to handle his various hardships and disappointments. He hopes his eldest son will continue their line of work, but he is already looking forward to leaving Hastings and its housing problems behind. “When the kids do eventually leave the house, I just want one motor home and I want to be out of the rat race, to live rent free. That’s my plan.”

Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.