Communities can save seaside piers in crisis

Britain’s piers are in danger — but the co-operative sector offers a solution, according to Co-operatives UK.

Britain’s piers are in danger — but the co-operative sector offers a solution, according to Co-operatives UK.

The trade body for co-operatives said it is not just corrosive seawater that threatens Britain’s 57 seaside piers, but owners who fail to meet high maintenance costs and a rocketing insurance bill, estimated at £33m over the next five years.

As seaside piers enjoy their busiest time of year, new research from Co-operatives UK examines their ownership, usage and future. Its new report, People's Piers, highlights the crisis they face and offers a blueprint for their revival as co-operatively-owned assets for the benefit of the community.

“Seaside piers make us smile,” said report author Jess Steele, co-founder of the People’s Pier Co-operative, which will run Hastings Pier, an asset now in community ownership. “But too many are trapped in a cycle of neglectful ownership with only periodic attempts at conservation.

“We believe that there’s a new option, now being pioneered for Hastings Pier, which is to take piers into local community ownership.”

Hastings Pier was owned by a firm registered in Panama before it was closed on safety grounds in 2006. The pier, which opened on the first ever August Bank Holiday in 1872, transferred to community ownership this month.

A community share issue will launch in September to supplement heritage grant funding and enable local ownership.

At present 56 per cent of piers are privately owned, with 39 per cent in local authority hands and five per cent in community ownership.

The report calls for a fast-track compulsory transfer process to rescue important community and heritage assets like seaside piers and a presumption in favour of communities taking ownership of such assets.

Seaside piers remain as popular as ever, with six million people a year visiting them. Co-operatives UK’s survey of over 1,000 adults in July 2013 showed that 69 per cent of the UK population have visited a pier in the last five years and 70 per cent want to visit one in the future.

Just three per cent said they would stay away from a pier, despite the majority of respondents stating they thought seaside towns were shabby and run down.

Far from being a retired person’s pursuit, the survey showed that visiting a pier this summer has been more attractive to people under 35 than to those who are older.

Brian Smith, Chief Executive of leisure co-operative HF Holidays and Chairman designate of the Britain on Foot campaign, said: “Many of Britain’s piers are in disrepair. The co-operative model offers a new option, working in partnership with the local community to renew and maintain our seaside piers.”

John Penrose, Coalition Minister for Tourism and Heritage until 2012 and MP Weston-super-Mare, a constituency which boasts two piers, added: “For piers across the country, exposed at all times to sea and weather, there’s a real challenge in meeting the high financial costs of upkeep and insurance. I applaud the search for new solutions to our national assets that can harness the passion and commitment that comes with co-operative and community models.”

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