Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Monday, 2 August 2010 13:43 UK
Hastings Pier hopes go up in smoke

Testing the government's idea of a 'big society' by the seaside

By Stephen Smith

Now that summer is well and truly here, I am heading for the coast, without a thought in my head except for the three S's. That's right: sun, sea - and society! (What did you think I meant?!)

By "society" I am of course referring to the big society. It is the government's idea to get us all volunteering and helping out, while they crack on with the arduous business of making the cuts the rest of us will have to put up with.

It is a wheeze dear to the heart of the Tory leader, the sort of thing that would once have been called "clear blue water".

And where better to dip a toe in that water than Hastings? A combination of low wages, and a high number of public sector jobs, means that the Sussex town is just the sort of place where the big society has to work, if it is going to work anywhere.

Saving the boardwalk

To do our bit, Newsnight has volunteered to take over the running of a roundabout on the seafront from a thunderstruck Hastings Council. Grateful isn't the word for their reaction!

The idea is to transform the old eyesore - I mean, "island" - into a fitting centrepiece of the Hastings Carnival, the highlight of the summer.

Stephen Smith's Big Society

Our latest visit to the town coincided with a red letter day in a campaign by volunteers to save that quintessential symbol of the British seaside: the pier.

The Hastings boardwalk was designed by the splendidly-handled Eugenius Birch, the same man who created Brighton pier. It opened for the sale of winkles and novelty daguerrotypes back in 1872.

Over the years, its timbers have absorbed not only the implacable briny, but also the throbbing chords of Jimi Hendrix's guitar. The rock legend is one of many who have appeared up to 910ft (277m) out to sea, at the end of the town's landmark.

The pier's spume-lashed boards have also been graced by the Stones, the Who and the Floyd. And rock 'n' roll mythology has it that a young and hard-up Rod Stewart once kipped on the beach, beneath the esplanade's barnacled groynes.

But in recent times this attraction has become disused, locked-up and neglected. Ownership has resided offshore, appropriately enough. As far offshore as Panama, in fact.

Some were beginning to fear that the pier would fall into wrack and ruin, and indeed the Channel.

Back to the roundabout

Conservative Nick Hurd
Nick Hurd has been appointed the government's Minister for Civil Society

However, a group of volunteers have formed a trust to prevent this. They have reopened a beautifully-appointed old gents' outfitters on the prom and turned it into a kind of second-hand shop, with proceeds going to a restoration campaign.

And they have accumulated thousands of signatures to a petition, urging the council to impose a compulsory purchase order.

We joined them as councillors were about to vote on the matter. At the same time, Nick Hurd MP, minister for the big society, was taking a tour of Eugenius's structure.

The minister also graciously accepted an offer of tea on Newsnight's roundabout, to discuss the government's policy.

In a word, it is about people getting involved, I suppose, about giving the big society a try. An eminent man - perhaps old Eugenius himself - once said that you should try anything once, except incest and Morris dancing.

Where our roundabout is concerned, Newsnight has ignored this advice, though to see exactly which storied fertility rites of Old England were enacted on the greensward, I am afraid you will have to tune in…

Watch the second film in Newsnight's Big Society series on Monday 2 August 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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