Retiring the Blog

You may have noticed that not much has happened on these pages since 1 November 2017. Not much has happened in Hertford either!

I suffered a very strange virus infection from the beginning of January this year. This is not the place to describe the symptoms; suffice it to say you wouldn’t raise the problems in polite company.

I am now fully recovered and have taken a few tentative steps around town.

Bircherley Green is almost totally boarded up and looks more like Dead End Street. It was never an attractive view looking over at the back door of Waitrose and the car park when crossing the footbridge by Folly Bridge. Now  the grim painted boards around  Starbucks has added to he scene of despair.

‘Those in the know’ thought that all the shops would be empty by the middle of April and the site totally demolished  before regeneration began. Some traders will remain in place for some time yet and rumours still circulate around the final destination of Boots and the siting of a new GP surgery. I have no answers either.

From our bedroom window we get a full view of the bus station. Over the months since Waitrose closed its doors more and more buses come into town with fewer passengers; and fewer shoppers leave.

I noticed a few other things. Popworld has succeeded The Stonehouse but I am advised by many of the younger generation that it is too cheesy even for ageing juveniles like me.

I noticed that Audio Hi-Fi in St Andrew Street remains dark and Beckwith’s is still up for grabs. Peter and Susan Brown have retired and some of the office space looks abandoned.

So it goes on. Old established businesses have closed. Long standing friends in the town have retired, made redundant or just left. It is a constant theme of these blog posts.

So I have decided to retire again; posts here may be fewer and far between unless something really amazing happens; like Bircherley Green falling into the River Lea.

I have retired a few times before so watch this space.

Contact John Barber: moc.r1524517390ebrab1524517390nhoj@1524517390tcatn1524517390oc1524517390

More thoughts on Bircherley Green Shopping Centre plans

I have already made some initial comments on the planing application recently submitted for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre (see right).

It is not going to win any awards but it does attempt to remove one eyesore from the centre of Hertford without putting another in its place. The Planning Statement comments: In summary, the wider area is of a generally mixed character with no particular prevailing building style or dominant materials. Whilst there are historic buildings throughout the Town Centre there are also a significant number of more recent buildings and developments.

The majority of Hertford’s buildings are listed in the Department of National Heritage List of Buildings of Special or Architectural Interest. Most are Grade II, a few such as Hertford Castle are Grade I but there is no place at all for Bircherley Green which was built in 1981.

The plans show the new Bircherley Green as three distinct blocks with retail premises supporting up to 70 apartments and Centurion House now a Premier Inn Hotel. The cleaner version from the Public Realm Statement is shown below.

Bircherley Green Shopping Centre

The big break from the past is that these plans allow for free and unfettered pedestrian access through the new centre. Before the shopping centre was built the area was home to the bus station, a town centre car park and a few remaining dwellings on the banks of the River Lea.

The main spine is to be The Mall which runs from Railway Street down to the river edge. This is also accessed by a path from the bus station and a much improved river walk which allows people to walk between the bus shelter and Bull Plain.

This is of course a double edged sword. Whilst it fulfils much of the town vision statements even harking back to the Riverside Yards Project of 1998 it also adds to the potential for all sorts of odd behaviour.

At present Bircherley Green Shopping Centre is gated and the gates closed in line with Waitrose opening hours. The Mall would not exist nor would the walk from the bus station. The river edge is no more than a service road and because of the restrictions on use provided by the gates in Railway Street and Bircherley Street is rarely used as a major thoroughfare.

This new free access will enable the proposed wining and dining area along the river to flourish. It will also mean that people will be walking through and around the centre all hours of day and night. The residents of the new builds will be parking their cars in the car park or searching for space elsewhere as will the hotel guests if the car park is full.

As we know Hertford has a bustling, energetic and thriving night time economy. But it brings with it loud and oft times aggressive and drunken noise and behaviour. The centre will now provide all manner of short cuts across town and an oasis of rest with benches along The Mall and on the riverside. The restaurants will no doubt try and push their closing times to a later hour and the lights along the Mall and the river might not always be switched off when they are supposed to.

None of this may happen. Nights may pass without disturbance from carousing drunks or noise from the night time economy. You cannot oppose something that has not happened but I do hope that in their consideration East Herts Council may have some regard for those residents who live close to this ‘jewel in the crown’.

Why doesn’t the 724 run on time

7 November 2014

Why does the Arriva 724 bus service between Harlow and Heathrow never run on time?

Why doesn’t the 724 run to the timetable?

Why is the Arriva Harlow to Heathrow bus service invariably late more times than it is on time?

Why is one or more runs cancelled at short notice without any warning?

Why do Arriva not publish punctuality and performance figures for the 724 bus service?

These questions came back to me yesterday whilst waiting with my daughter and two grandchildren at Hertford Bus Station. They were hoping to catch the 10.20am bus to St Albans. It was an unusually chilly morning and the bus did not arrive until 10.50am. Considering that Hertford is near the beginning of what is admittedly a long route and the bus is scheduled to leave Harlow at 9.50am this is a very lengthy delay. Naturally there was no word of apology or explanation from the driver.

This bus in particular is often late as is the 10.07am from St Albans to Hertford. Sometimes neither of these services run at all. It is not just these particular timings but across the whole timetable.

Whilst biding our time counting buses we noticed that the 724 to Harlow service came in at 10.25am about the time that one might expect the 724 to Heathrow service. This was not an optical illusion. Various passengers did ask the driver if he could be the late running 10.20 724 to Heathrow and even offered him a small gratuity to do so. But no, he was on the way to Harlow.

This is also quite odd as either he was the late running 9.56 am service or the extremely early running 11.01am service. Having some experience of waiting for the 724 at Welwyn Garden City bus station and/or QEII hospital I was at best confused.

I know that this is a long route covering Hertford, Welwyn Garden City, St Albans, Watford and on to Heathrow but it is of not help to anyone waiting along the route. There are few east/west services anyway and the only alternative my daughter has is to take a University bus to Welwyn and then a 300 to St Albans. Fine you may say, but not so easy with two boys of two and half years old and one year old in a pushchair with bits of shopping and changing bags etc etc.

It might make things a bit easier to bear if there was up to date information. The information board at Hertford is placed on the service yard wall and not actually under the covered area of the bus station. It is no more than an electronic version of the paper timetable displayed behind the glass cabinets attached to the brickwork. The board does not display delays and once the appointed time for a bus arrival or departure has passed the number is wiped away completely

Why can’t the bus operators or the bus authority which is I suppose Hertfordshire County Council invest in a system which works very well in London whereby the running times of all routes is displayed with any delays or cancellations on a screen built into the bus stop itself?

I don’t know the answer although I suppose it has its roots (sorry for the pun) in finance or lack of; or a total inability to run a modern service. They can’t even make up their minds what to do about subsidies towards loss making bus routes which provide a vital service for the old, infirm and disadvantaged groups. This decision has been deferred until 2015 so we can still get on a bus after 6.30pm. Yippee!!

Whilst sheltering from the sprightly November wind my daughter said that there as no other real option but to learn to drive. I support her in this. But you can see where this is going. One less passenger, one more car, less bus services owing to lack of passengers, fares rise, more car owners and so on ad infinitum until the powers that be have it all their own way and no more have to pay for a public service such as buses. One more headache solved. But not for my daughter with two tired children and a rather exasperated father and grandfather.

Bircherley Green Regeneration

10 September 2014

I went out today at about 3.00pm to visit the Post Office. Fortunately I was walking. A Boots delivery van was badly parked on the corner of Railway Street behind the delivery bay. A 310 double decker bus was unable to complete a turn from Market Street resulting in a queue of traffic down Market Street, along both sides of Fore Street and into Parliament Square. There was nowhere for any vehicle to go apart from waiting for the obstruction to clear. In that congestion was a fire appliance fortunately I hope, not on a call.

What has this to do with the Bircherley Green Regeneration plans you ask?

Wrenbridge, working on behalf of Cordeo-Savills have had some preliminary consultation meetings with Councils, residents and also set up a stand in Bircherley Green on 30/31 August 2014. The plans which at this stage are no more than artists impressions lack any real detail as to measurements, materials or size. There have been comments both positive and negative on the proposed siting of a new anchor food store and the provision of 124 town centre apartments.

The main area of concern for those who attended the consultations was the removal of the bus station from Bircherley Green and the provision of a number of enhanced bus stops along Fore Street. .

Under the new proposals all buses would have to enter the town along Fore Street from the roundabout; and exit through South Street, turning either right or left. There are no lights at the South Street exit where it joins the main roundabout.

Fore Street is one way and at best restricts traffic to one lane only as on the north side there are already marked out bus stops and the the south side has allocated parking spaces and delivery bays for traders. Even so, there is not a lot of room for two large vehicles to pass.

In effect all buses will be circling the town along Fore Street, through Market Street and out again through Railway Street; along with all other traffic. At present when buses are early or catching up with the timetable they wait at the bus station. Sometimes there can be up to six or seven buses standing there idle, as well as patient passengers. There will be no room for any of this if the move to Fore Street goes ahead.

It is worth mentioning here that Hertford is an ancient market town full of buildings of historical or architectural interest; the roads were not built for, nor intended for heavy modern traffic. The impact of so many extra buses along roads not constructed for their use may well break up the surface and cause uncertain damage to the historic structures all around.

The pavements at Fore Street are quite narrow and there is not much space for all the schoolchildren waiting for a bus at 3.30pm. In addition this is the site for the Taxi Marshalling Scheme on weekends and the present taxi rank is located on the north side of Railway Street.

Most people to whom I have spoken cannot see how this can work. There are a lot of bus routes which use the current bus station and they all have to be accommodated. For many people in Hertford the bus is the only means of travel. It is a worrying state of affairs at best.

You may now understand why I began this post with the traffic problems this afternoon. The driver returned to his van and the traffic moved again. It was not a long hold-up. However it only needs one broken bus, minor traffic incident or a badly parked car to gridlock the whole town in a matter of minutes and remain so for hours.

I think Wrenbridge and their fellow consultants may have to dramatically re-think their strategy.

Death by a thousand cuts

29 July 2014

Hertford has reasonably good transport links owing to its two train stations and bus station. Buses run almost to timetable except the Arriva 724 Harlow to Heathrow route which travels along a parallel universe where there are no hands on the clocks and it is never late until twenty minutes past the time indicated on the timetables. Like most areas north-south links are fine but the east-west routes are not so frequent.

There are evening and Sunday buses as well but if the intended cuts to bus company subsidies to be made by Hertfordshire County Council go ahead then there will be fewer if any buses at all running after 6.30pm or on Sundays to the furthest parts of the town, the villages or as they are sometimes called ‘the hinterland’.

This is not so good if you need to get home after a days work and have no other means of transport. It makes a mockery of the term ‘public service’. HCC’s own research indicates that there will continue to be a fall in the availability of public transport as commuters fed up with declining services and rising fares will turn to car ownership, thus creating a vicious circle. The car will be the dominant form of transport and buses will be a less than reliable service for the infirm, elderly and those who are unable to afford alternative transport.

There is still time to comment on the proposals which go under the familiar umbrella of ‘public consultation’ although there is no doubt that expenditure has to be saved and cuts will have to be made to met that shortfall. The Hertfordshire Libdems have begun an on-line petition.

Hertford is the county town. Fact. When I moved to Hertford in 1980 it was a thriving, bustling market town. During my years as Town Centre Manager since 2000 I have watched the steady decline of the retail offer and the equal dominance of the evening economy along with the change to a coffee shop culture, an urban feel for bars and gastro-pubs and a glut of premises in the hair and beauty sector.

Since my first post on Hertford’s retail offer two more shops are closing – Cactus in Railway Street and Loulebelle in Old Cross.

This has not happened overnight. Perhaps only people like me who are able to sit around and watch the world go by can appreciate the slow movement that has taken place. When traders some of whom have been here for over thirty years start to tell me that ‘there is nothing in Hertford to come here for’ then you know you have problems. The evenings are fine but in the day time then it is the elderly, mums with pushchairs and the unemployed and unemployable who fill the town.

Offices are being converted to residential units. This is in line with Government guidelines in wishing to bring people back to the town centres. But you need to work in London to be able to afford the cost of buying in the town centre. People stay in London for entertainment and shopping and the money stays in London. Therefore the numbers of office staff are also declining; they used to browse the book shops, Woolworths. W H Smiths, keep the sandwich bars in business and all the other independent shops we were proud of. There are not so many of these any more either and this is helping to accelerate the rapid fall in footfall during the day time, the lifeblood of the traditional traders. It is fine coming to town for a cup of coffee but you used to shop first and then drink, now you just drink because the shops are closing.

Not just the shops. Sovereign House as well. Admittedly this has been a blot on the Hertford landscape for some time but it also housed the Inland Revenue Services and Social Security office. Both of these are now boarded up. I presume the latter has been moved to the Jobcentre Plus building in Parliament Square but as for the tax man – perhaps Stevenage?! And the drop-in arrangement at Wallfields has also been cancelled.

There was a County Court here as well which used to hear family disputes but this was moved to Shire Hall some years ago. In 1971 a Crown Court was established in St Albans but criminal cases and the juvenile court presided over by magistrates were still held at Shire Hall but have now been transferred to either Stevenage or St Albans and only the family court remains here. This could also lead to some of Hertford’s solicitors moving as well to be close to where cases are heard adding to the exodus of office workers mentioned above.

Just around the corner from Sovereign House is the local Police Station. It is closed to the public. You cannot just turn up and speak to someone at the front desk. You have to make an appointment. The Probation Office remains in Ware Road but Hertfordshire Highways has moved out from its Hertford base also in Ware Road to St Albans, Stevenage and other centres. County Hall sits on top of the hill but many of its functions have also been transferred around the county. East Herts Council at Wallfields encourages more staff to work from home and utilise hotdesking when in town.

You may be spotting a trend here. I have mourned the loss of the round town cycle race and Fun Day is no more. This years Hertford Carnival had to be cancelled for lack of interest amongst the town’s clubs, societies and other organisations – not I might add the organisers. In the early part of this decade the Vintage Bus Rally from Hertford Bus Station was a highlight of Fun Day but this year was so poorly attended by enthusiasts and public that I fear this may also be lost.

I repeat: Hertford is the County town. But slowly and almost imperceptibly its pre-eminence as an administrative centre has diminished to the point where it is hard to see it continuing to function as such. It is still a pleasant town to visit with its strong architectural and historical heritage but even tourists are slowly waning.

I headed this piece ‘Death by a thousand cuts’. On the surface nothing has changed but underneath Hertford is bleeding, possibly mortally from a succession of decisions taken by various groups who see no future for the town which has been stripped of all those things that make its residents happy to live here.

The town’s motto is ‘Pride in our Past, Faith in our Future’. What future now?