Light on the horizon: the story of the Eastbourne fishing quay

How fishers in Eastbourne worked together to build their own community fishing quay

Good things come to those who wait, or so that saying goes.

Like so many small-scale fleets across the UK, fishers in Eastbourne have been squeezed to the point of extinction. So, way back in 2014, we began working with fishers in Eastbourne to help shape a proposal for a new fishing quay. The Fishing Quay project would enable fishers to own or lease their own quay in Sovereign Harbour, to give them long-term security and a place where they can store and process their own catch, add value and sell direct to the public. Eventually, the project aims to link this working quay with the local community and businesses, while also providing a visitors’ centre to draw in tourists and customers to find out about local seafood and fishing heritage. And now two weeks ago – five years after we wrote the grant funding application and business case – we broke ground.

It has been a real, slow, struggle. I wrote about NEF’s work with coastal communities (the Blue New Deal) in 2017, when we had successfully applied for the £1.25m grant funding and developed a Community Economic Development plan with local people, businesses, local authorities and fishers. The project looked set to start – but turbulent times lay ahead.

In 2018, the landowner (Carillion) went bust – the largest construction bankruptcy in British history. The land that Carillion owned, where fishers moored their vessels, was sold in a fire sale from under the fishers’ noses to Premier Marinas who already run the harbour and owned most of the land. Agreeing a long-term lease with them took a year of legal discussion, despite support from their CEO, local councils, and local MPs.

During that period, we successfully raised more grant funding and loan support to bankroll the project – from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (SELEP) Growing places fund, East Sussex County Council’s ESI 4 scheme, and Seafarers UK.

By now the plan and project were looking very strong, well supported, financed and ready to go.

But, as is so often the case, things were not that simple.

The building contractor that was to be appointed for the work went into administration in 2019. This meant we had to review the other tenders, and update the grant and loan applications– adding many weeks of re-negotiation and changes.

Surely nothing else could stand in the way once this hurdle was overcome? Wrong. Enter Covid-19.

Within weeks, the pandemic had all but wiped out the markets for seafood (as demand from restaurants disappeared overnight) and pushed fishers to the brink, forcing them to apply for government support. This was a serious blow to everyone involved in the project and in fishing in general. The pandemic also hit the construction industry hard, and the impact of lockdown meant that once again plans were set back by many months.

But now, six years after NEF became involved, seven years after Eastbourne Fishermen formed a Community Interest Company (CIC), and 30 years since the idea of a fishing quay started as a promise from the landowner (in exchange for fishers supporting the Harbour Bill and construction of the marina – a promise that was never honoured), the quay project construction has now begun.

On the one hand, it’s time to breathe a collective sigh of relief. But on the other, the real work is yet to start. The CIC now needs to formalise and professionalise its structure, develop an updated business plan, and decide how to make decisions to ensure that the quay can become the beating heart of Sovereign Harbour.

Today, I joined a virtual opening ceremony for the quay project, bringing together everyone who played their part in making this project happen. But an unexpected surprise announcement has moved this project further, as the SELEP will now provide £1.08m of grant support to embed the project in the coastal and tourism economy. When we were funded by East Sussex County Council to write the bid and business case for these phases in 2018, various hurdles meant that phases 2 and 3 looked very unlikely to start soon, so the announcement today has been a really massive boost for the community at this crucial time.

Beyond these next few months of building phase one (the quay, cold storage, processing unit, smokery and fishmongers), there are the second and third phases (storage and repair space as well as a visitors’ centre) which can now be built in one continuous phase rather than many years into the future. A far more efficient and positive outlook for 2020 and 2021 shows we have weathered the storms.

Now we will be supporting the fishers to work together in an organised way, have their CIC running well, that they can overcome the inevitable hurdles of the future, and show that this coastal community demonstrates what’s possible when we work together.

Image: Herry Lawford (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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