What future for Hertford now

Now that the dust has settled on the planning application for Bircherley Green Shopping Centre it is time to think ahead. There are still a few permissions and details to be finalised but for many the die has already been cast.

The owners of the site have given everybody notice to quit. This was not unexpected as many leases had already been amended to include such a break clause. Everyone will have to be out by 28th April 2018. Some traders have already quit such as Halfords, the Luxury Soap Shop, Hob and Rock Sassy and some such as Chris the gents hairdresser is shortly moving to new premises in Fore Street. But for others the stark choice is either find new premises quickly or face closing down completely.

Whatever the outcome the Bircherley Green site will possibly be completely demolished and then rebuilt from the ground up over a period of maybe two years and more. A big hole in Hertford. You can read in previous posts that there are more shop vacancies than normal and with building work to be a common factor in town centre life who is going to be willing to invest in a new retail venture until the dust has settled again.

There are various schemes in action such as the Hertford Town Centre Urban Design Strategy and the pedestrianisation of Maidenhead Street. However these are in the control of East Herts and/or Hertford Town Councillors. This is not necessarily a bad thing but there can be little input from those who are affected most – traders and residents who live and work in the town centre itself.

Way back in the late 1980’s the Government authorised the setting up Town Centre Management Boards across the country. They were funded by Local Government and most had an initial grant of £35,000. Not so here. Hertford, Ware and Bishops Stortford were given £10,000 each and Buntingford £5,000. Each were established slightly differently but the basic idea was that each Board drew its membership from District and Town Councillors, Chambers of Commerce, Police Neighbourhood Teams, Residents Associations and representation from the day time and night time economies. In other words a cross section of the town that reflected each and every view on how the town should develop, or could develop.

The Hertford Board (HTCMB) used the £10,000 to run events such as Fun Days and French markets. They were very successful in attracting visitors even if most of the input was voluntary. The HTCMB folded a few years ago as East Herts decided that ‘things had not worked out as we had expected’ and the annual grant was withdrawn along with funding to all other towns. In the last few years of existence the agreement by which the grant was awarded was linked to providing economic intelligence rather than staging events to attract visitors. There was no restriction on events but they had to be paid for by other means.

During its existence the HTCMB often fell foul of East Herts as it produced petitions and reports criticising the current parking policy in town; as well as other things it thought could be improved. This caused a conflict between the Board and the hand that fed it. Maybe it was not as effective as it might have hoped but it did try and provide an opposition to the established political establishment.

At present all 50 seats at East Herts Council are filled by 50 Tory Councillors and 15 of the 16 seats at Hertford Town Council are also Tory held. There is no Hertford Chamber of Commerce any more, the HTCMB which renamed itself the Hertford Town Partnership was wound down about six years ago. In short there is no opposition. This is not healthy in an open democracy.

I think it is time that those sections of the community mentioned above form a representative body again because the next three years is an uncertain journey and the destination is the future of those people who have most to lose. I mentioned this in my letter of support for the Wrenbridge proposals for Bircherley Green. I do not doubt that the various political committees will move forward in a proper and in their eyes the right way but maybe this is not the way that the people most affected want or desire.

When the Hertford Town Partnership was wound up I was awarded a grant to provide East Herts with a report on five projects that could be established with the least effort and minimal funding but provide the greatest environmental impact.

I whittled down pages of varied projects, many completely of-the-wall or left field but one of my five final suggestions was to introduce the Community Toilet Scheme. This is a scheme whereby the Council pay hotels and restaurants a small monthly or annual sum in order for the public to use their toilets. There is a significant lack of public toilet facilities in Hertford but an overwhelming number of hotels, bars and restaurants.

I was pleasantly surprised this morning to find the following item on BBC News regarding a similar scheme in Bremen, Germany.

Maybe not pleasantly surprised because I had championed this in 2009. Much to my chagrin the pilot project took place in Ware and then extended to Bishops Stortford. Why not Hertford that has more watering holes than those two put together and only has one public toilet at the bus station that defies description and another in The Six Templars with an entrance by the Castle gates.

Those with long memories may recall that the development of the Six Templars was delayed whilst Wetherspoons and East Herts Council argued over who should be responsible for cleaning these toilets as they occupied space where public toilets previously existed.

This problem was overcome but there are also well appointed facilities on the first floor. If you sit awhile in Wetherspoons you will notice many a passer-by popping in and walking upstairs to avail themselves of the facilities and then exiting back into the street. No one seems to mind, the toilets are always clean and inspected frequently – so why should Wetherspoons not be rewarded by the Council for providing a safe and hygienic facility.

My other point is why given the complete disparity in the number of premises available Hertford was overlooked in favour of Ware. You can appreciate why i would like to see a form of town representation rise again.

You can contact John Barber here: moc.r1516551658ebrab1516551658nhoj@1516551658tcatn1516551658oc1516551658

 

Vale, adios, aloha, ciao, auf wiedersehen, au revoir and goodbye Waitrose

So, the final act as been played out and the Hertford Waitrose is no more. Some might say this is a sad day for the town but more of that later. I am reminded of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
So let it be with Waitrose.

Waitrose closed doors
Waitrose closed

I have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of comments on social media sites from posters who have accused everyone from Council (pick one from three) to Waitrose to John Lewis to Diageo and Wrenbridge and Planners in general for the closure. Some of the comments have been at best uninformed and at worst pure fantasy. I do not claim to be completely ‘au fait’ with all the events leading up to today but if you read a selection of my posts on this subject (right) you will see that closure was inevitable and no one single person or company’s fault.

I have known Waitrose to have been a part of Hertford’s commercial and social life since 2001 when I first became involved in the town and right up to my retirement as Town Centre Manager in 2010.

They were one of the major sponsors of Hertford Fun Day. My abiding memory of the manager at that time Jim Brewin was seeing him in the middle of Old Cross standing by his collapsible chair, floppy hat on head, water bottle in hand directing the road closures. Jim was Chairman of the Fun Day committee until 2005; he organised his staff to help man the road closures and act as stewards and as seen in the previous sentence led by example.

Waitrose provided some of the initial funding for the radios for Hertford Town Watch; a town centre security initiative that with 50 traders, licensees and venues with radios and 19 CCTV cameras became the envy of many other towns. It might not have been that way had not a van parked in Salisbury Square on the morning of one Fun Day exactly where the stage was to be set up. The radio to CCTV control would not work and we discovered that when Waitrose closed at night and on Sundays as it did then, the power to the aerial was also switched off. Of course the aerial is now fully functional 24/7 and has been moved now that Waitrose has closed.

Along with Lloyds Bank Waitrose sponsored the food for the Hertford Town Watch members breakfast meeting at the Waterside until Michelle left. A free breakfast was extended to all town centre traders and you could get everything from a cup of coffee to a full English.

So it has always been. Nearly every organisation in town has cause to be grateful to Waitrose for a form of sponsorship or charitable donation; the Horticultural Show at the Castle, Hertford Food and Drink Festival and lunchtime Soundbites concerts at All Saints Church are amongst those too numerous to mention to have benefited and this does not include the monthly community matters also known as the green coin box.

As sure as night follows day the Hertfordshire Mercury has had an input in its own inimitable style – ‘Eleven things we will miss about Waitrose’.  I will mention a few.

First – Overheard in Waitrose – I was going to award an Oscar here but here are three contenders in reverse order; 3. When does the sale start? 2. I hear John Lewis will be moving in when you move out and my favourite of all time which would have taken the Oscar and the teatime biscuit 3. Wetherspoons have bought the whole of the shopping centre and there will be a bar on the ground floor and a beer garden on the first floor and be overlooked by the car park.

Second – Free coffee – yes, it was great to pick up your morning boost of caffeine at no charge along with the Daily News but as I have mentioned elsewhere Waitrose became part of the problem. Small coffee bars in many English towns suffered a significant loss of trade with this initiative. So now Hertford’s own independent coffee shops may see a small upturn in trade, along with the newsagents with newspaper and Lottery sales and even the dry cleaners.

Third – Employees own the business – they do not. Owners of businesses are not made redundant. ‘Partners’ as they are called have a contract of employment like any other company employee, they have to fight for their holiday entitlement against each other, they get disciplined for breaking company guidelines like anybody else and many are paid just above the National Average Wage. The company will claim that they offer a competitive wage which when the annual bonus and staff discount are taken into account brings the salary up to the level of the National Living Wage. That may be so but the level of profit sharing has been dropping over the last few years and with the supermarket pricing wars raging staff discount does not always compensate for the slightly higher pricing structure at the stores. This is not ownership.

To continue my theme of mentioning the good it should be noted that all staff that expressed a desire to remain with the company have all been found suitable employment within the group. Those that wished to leave have done so with a very good redundancy and/or retirement package. Throughout this experience since closure was announced in February there has been constant consultation and support from many Head Office departments for all the staff and you cannot say fairer than that. There is sure to be many a tear dropping from eyes when four o’clock chimes.

I don’t know if this will be the case throughout the town. Everyone who knows about these things knew that Waitrose lease expired in 2016. For many years previous County, District and Town Council members and officers have all stated that Hertford will collapse and die if and when Waitrose should leave. No one has done anything to lessen the impact such closure will now have. Retail units are already starting to become vacant.

A huge sum was spent on the Hertford Town Centre  Design and Vision Strategy. That did not offer any proposals either other than a rather extensive appendix as found in Rollercoaster Tycoon or Sim City to illustrate the varied and wonderful designs of street furniture that could be installed in Hertford Town Centre. They were a little light on where the finance was coming from.

I know that the fall out from the closure of Waitrose will be painful and will continue to talk about it here.

You can contact John Barber here: moc.r1516551658ebrab1516551658nhoj@1516551658tcatn1516551658oc1516551658

The decline in Hertford’s retail offer – Part Three

During my time as Town Centre Manager it was easy to promote Hertford, a different but amazing kind of town full of independent traders; a town where you could still find a haberdashery (since closed), ironmongers and diving school (closed since December 2016 and premises still unoccupied). That wide retail offer continues to decline since my first post on this phenomenon in November last year (see below).

BeckwithsI walked along St Andrew Street and the first thing I noticed was that one of the most iconic buildings in town was ‘To Let’ – Beckwiths, once home to an equally iconic antiques business.

 

It was also home for the stone man that was decapitated a few years back. He was restored but the damage means he is not so tall and does not fit so snugly underneath the eaves.

A little further towards Old Cross ‘Audio Hi-Fi’ remains empty as it has done for more years than I can remember. The business moved around the corner opposite the old Library but it was soon sold to a competitor who then closed it and Deli Italia moved in only to close as well a few months back. The premises remain empty. A few more yards along Bob Hill Motorcycles remains dark.

All is not lost in St Andrew Street as Fingertips have moved in where the Il Vino coffee shop was but this has left a hole in Fore Street of which much later.

Ashleys

On to Maidenhead Street and the sad frontage of what was Ashleys – see my earlier note.

 

The last time I looked in there was an empty space full of concrete debris and a JCB that had fallen into a pit.

 

A few weeks back Planning Department nailed a notice to the hoarding for the owners to replace the hoarding with something more befitting the town. It was pushed through the letterbox and nothing more has happened.

 

Halifax now closed

To the right and along Honey Lane is the similarly empty and boarded premises of the Halifax.

This was part of the Lloyds Banking Group and Lloyds Bank in Bircherley Street must surely be a casualty of the Bircherley Green Redevelopment.

 

The space is required for the new Premier Inn – if planning is approved

Speaking of which Halfords are going early and have announced that they will be leaving their present site on September 19 and moving across the road on September 26 beneath the gym at the old Marquee Centre. This will increase the empty space in the shopping centre as Freedom Australia moved out some time ago; and The Luxury Soap Company and Hobs Hairdressers have also departed.

A few short steps from Halfords the Ruby Room annexe shop is also empty again, Retail Therapy having moved some time ago to St Andrew Street.

four seasonsI have mentioned Fingertips above as having moved from Fore Street but that is just the beginning of the story.

The Oak Room and Creative Sanctuary both have ‘To Let’ signs above and will be closing at the end of the summer period.

 

Four Seasons gift shop is in the final days of a sale before closure and Emma H the bra shop is also empty (owing to lack of support – sorry, couldn’t resist that awful pun).

Out of curiosity I checked a few estate agents on-line to see what retail premises were available and saw a few not mentioned above and will not mention here as there are no visible signs of the incumbents wanting to vacate premises. The obvious signs are there; that Hertford is seeing a slow and gradual loss of retail outlets.

It is not all doom and gloom. Two vaping shops have opened in Market Street and St Andrew Street and Hertford Wine in Maidenhead Street. The last time I updated my database the vacancy rate in Hertford was slightly over 3%. I am informed that it is now just over 5% but does not include the recent and imminent closures above.

Let us not forget that Waitrose will close on 12th September and that a date for a decision to be made on the planning application for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green has yet to be set. Until such time as a decision is made I cannot see how anyone can have any confidence in opening a shop in Hertford – of course I could be wrong.

Contact John Barber here: moc.r1516551658ebrab1516551658nhoj@1516551658tcatn1516551658oc1516551658

The decline in Hertford’s Retail Offer Part One

The decline in Hertford’s Retail Offer Part Two

 

Hertford Waitrose closing on September 12 2017

Finally the second boot has fallen. It has been announced in black and white (well dark Waitrose battleship grey and white) that the Hertford branch of Waitrose will be closing for the final time at 4.00pm on Tuesday September 12 2017.

This will come as no surprise to many – those who have been closely following this blog for instance – or a complete shock to those who thought that this could never happen. The latter still believe that either the Partnership will change its mind at the last minute and stay; or hold to a view quite prevalent in town that Waitrose will upsticks and move a few miles up the road to the Van Hages site in Ware. Once again these points have been explained in great detail on these pages so there is no need to repeat them.

So what will the Waitrose shopper do from September 13 onwards? There are of course various options which have escaped scrutiny. There is a store quite close in Welwyn Garden City, almost next to a John Lewis. The 724 Arriva bus route runs almost every hour.

But there is no need to travel.

There is a Sainsburys store on the edge of town at Hartham. This has parking on the flat, a coffee shop, toilets and spaces for disabled and mother and child parking.

There is a Tesco slightly out of town in Mead Lane. This also has parking on the flat, a coffee counter, toilets and disabled spaces along with mother and child parking.

Not so large is Marks and Spencer which not surprisingly has parking on the flat.

You will see a pattern emerging. Waitrose have consistently stated that the Bircherley Green site before or after redevelopment does not offer them a viable alternative. The Waitrose site has been offered to all and any interested party who have to a man turned the offer down as the site does not offer parking on the flat. The man or housewife on the Clapham omnibus would rather walk to their car in the rain than take an unreliable lift.

Of course if you do have an uncontrollable wanderlust then there is an Asda and a Tesco in Ware as well as a Little Sainsburys. A little further along the A10 is Broxbourne with an Asda, Sainsburys, Iceland, Adi, Lidl and Morrisons. Almost spoilt for choice. And a Waitrose 1.6 miles away in Broxbourne.

Now all we have to wait for is the outcome of the Bircherley Green Redevelopment Planning Application which will be discussed by East Herts Council Development Management Committee on July 19th. Whatever their decision the Waitrose site in Bircherley Green will be dark for a very long time.

July 2017 – This application does not appear on the agenda for the 19th July meeting. I assume that there has been a significant amendment to the plans which would involve another period of consultation and hopefully a recommendation one way or the other to the DMC. Watch this space.

A walk through Hertford 2017 style

Wrenbridge have just submitted the final plans for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre after months of discussion between themselves and East Herts Planning Department, local groups, residents and more than enough statutory consultant bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust that you can throw a blueprint at.

If you really must read all about it then follow this link to the planing page and read as many documents as your brain will allow: Documents relating to application.

Bircherley Green Shopping Centre is located in the town centre bordered by Railway Street to the south, the River Lee (Lea) to the north, Bircherley Street to the east and Bull Plain to the west. This map explains it all:

Aerial view of Bircherley Green
Bircherley Green in blue (top centre) within Hertford Town boundaries

This small piece of real estate almost lost in the middle of twentieth century expansion has consumed the minds of the good and great since 2014. It is contained within the Hertford Conservation Area but as everyone admits it is not the most attractive group of buildings to grace this ancient, market town.

So why has it got everyone defending it and wanting to counter any change? Because Hertford is an ancient English market town. I doubt if anyone who has contributed to any report listed above has bothered to walk the streets recently. They might have a different opinion if they had; so I will save you the trouble of visiting the town yourself and explain how Hertford fits into this mind set.

Hertford has seen a return to the old traditional crafts of tattooing, vaping, nail polishing and video gaming. Many shops have adopted a simple Dark Ages colour scheme of black or dark battleship grey eschewing the more modern trend towards hand painted signage above the door applied with mahlstick and sable brush.

The inns and taverns that were found in almost every house the length of Fore Street and Back Street (now Railway Street and Maidenhead Street) have been replaced by bars and venues serving ‘craft’ beer from metal kegs and poured from bottles containing ales and stouts that were never brewed anywhere in the county or for that matter, the country.

The old coffee shops have given way to transatlantic coffee shops with even stranger sounding names where no face to face commerce takes place apart from a Wi-fi link and where a cup of coffee costs more than a pack of Java beans from a supermarket shelf. Thank Heavens for Rose Cafe which stands by the traditional methods and where you can still buy a traditional cup of Nescaff for under a pound and it is brought to your table with saucer almost as soon as it is ordered.

Unfortunately many staple mid seventeenth century meals such ‘boyle beef, porch, rost beef and cheese’ have been replaced by a growth of restaurants with a distinctive Italian flavour and a slight hint of Turkish. This type of Continental fayre is thought to have been brought over to this country by the growing number of Italian students eager for a sight of their Shakespearean heritage behind the modern facade of estate agents and charity shops.

Do seek out the commercial sector, many of the inns and stores that sold these hot and cold vittals are still there. Many are seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings; one or two are thought to be sixteenth century. The timber framing and plaster boarding have been protected for posterity by the application of twentieth century concrete. You cannot see the original design or view the interior as they are mostly private offices but they are all to be found in the Department of Environment List of Buildings of Historic or Architectural Interest being at least of Grade II standard.

As befits a medieval town the road system is all that you could wish for. The town centre layout has not changed much since the early seventeenth century as Spede’s map of 1611 shows.

Spede's map of 1611
Spede’s map of 1611

Fore Street and Back Street mentioned above can be plainly seen leading from Hertford Castle in the centre to the town’s eastern boundary.

Not only is the road system exactly the same as it was over four hundred years ago, so are the roads. The cobbles have no mortar to bind them, broken slabs on the pavements catch the unwary lady with high heels and pot holes peer though the thin tarmac on the surface of the roads to laugh at motorists. Hertford was built for the horse and cart and this is still the best form of travel through town although there are now no inns to stable your horses which is a bit of a stinker. But fear not, you can still park your car – for a fee – before the Beadle catches up with you.

Did I mention Hertford Castle? It did exist but the unwary visitor may find it hard to find. All that remains is the grassy mound on which the original Norman motte was built. What we call ‘the Castle’ is actually the gatehouse rebuilt by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century and then parts of it were blown up by the Duke of Devonshire in the nineteenth century.

No medieval town could be without its castle; or its market. There is a Charter Market on Saturdays which struggles to fill the available space. No longer are cattle herded down Fore Street to be sold at market behind the old inns that stretched to All Saints churchyard at the rear. I suppose this might be a good thing as they might wander along Gascoyne Way and cause traffic to snarl up all along the A414 east and west, which of course never ever happens at all in these more enlightened times.

This is why report after report from agencies as diverse as Historic England and Waste Services have been damning the application to redevelop Bircherley Green Shopping Centre in a bid to protect Hertford’s heritage and architectural beauty from the ravages of the Twenty First century – and urge us all to continue to embrace the legacy of the Saxons, the Norman Conquest, the Plague and the Poor Law.

It is now all in the hands of the East Herts Council Planing department – we await their decision.