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A little flexibility could save our seaside towns

At a recent lecture at the Soane Museum, Cedric Price recalled one of his favourite projects. In a competition for proposals to revitalise Hastings pier, Fergus Henderson, then an architectural student but now a highly regarded chef at Clerkenwell's St John Restaurant, proposed a simple solution: a fish restaurant at the end of the pier to take advantage of the fruits of the local fisheries. The building itself was drawn simply as arectangle on the basis that, having established the best fish restaurant on the south coast, the owner of the pier would be in a position to hire an architect to design an appropriate building.

Such flexibility of thought is the only hope for Britain's often run- down seaside towns. Mass tourism to the British coast will never return to its former volumes and other means of support must be found if our seaside architecture is to be maintained. The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Brighton's West Pier are particularly grand examples of the kind of monuments to mass entertainment left in the backwash of home-grown tourism, but both are suffering. The De La WarrPavilion is a thriving arts centre but is vulnerable to withdrawal of public grants, while the West Pier's decay is held in check, just, only through frantic fund-raising. In October, Hastings Pier closed down due to financial difficulties, and it has not been open since.

The future of such wonders will only be secure if they can be turned into assets, rather than drains, on local resources. And this will only come about if we adopt an open mind as to the possibility of changing uses.

The experience of towns such as Padstow, Dartmouth and Whitstable suggests that a restaurant of sufficient repute could attract corporate entertainment, channelling some of London's wealth to the more deprived south coast and giving a boost to the fishing industry on which Hastings' economy was built. A structure which has to withstand the constant ravages of the sea cannot exist on profits from penny slot machines. But once there is a commercial incentive to maintain the pier, it will be viable to re- open it as a public promenade, available for residents and visitors alike.

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