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’.

The decline in Hertford’s Retail Offer

23 May 2014

Yesterday I walked though Hertford town centre and noticed that the shop in Railway Street once occupied by Thomas Cook was now empty and available for rent. The staff have apparently been relocated to Welwyn Garden City. This is another loss to the retail offer in town.

Amidst the continuing uncertainty over the future of Waitrose in Bircherley Green I believe that a more worrying trend is being overlooked. In the last month or so Hertford has lost a number of retail outlets that were essential to providing independent outlets in the face of the growth of clone towns everywhere else.

Hertford Cameras closed its doors after many years trading. I see that this is now occupied by a wedding outfitter and this is an encouraging development. However Artico in Maidenhead Street is due to close in June, East Herts Electrical in Market Place is empty, The Decorated Room is shortly to close and Hertford Pet Supplies closed its doors for the last time on Saturday just past.

Each one had their own personal reasons for closure. I count myself quite fortunate to have known many of those traders over a long period of years. As Town Centre Manager I would pop in for a chat and became friends as the years passed. I miss people like Roy Roberts at Wiggingtons. The world was always a better place after a few hours in his company whilst he railed against the problems faced by retailers in the face of local and national government interference.

This recent crop of closures is just a continuation of a pattern that I have noticed since around 2005/06. Hertford has a very low percentage of empty premises which is very much against the national trend; vacancies are filled quite quickly which is a excellent reflection on the faith people have in the town. Although one shining exception might be the old MacDonalds in Maidenhead Street

However many of the new businesses fall into the categories of coffee shops, bars, delicatessens and the hair and beauty sectors. We have lost many ladies fashion outlets, home accessories and antiques such as Wiggintons and specialist independents such as Margaret Hart’s haberdashery and Marshalls Bike Shop.

I moved to Hertford in the early 1980’s and it was known as a centre for the antique trade. All of the antique shops have gone with the exception of Beckwiths. In 2007 when I came to amend my original town centre database of 2005 I used it to show the make up of each street by trade and shop/office/residential use.

At this time both Tesco and Sainsburys had applications before the Planning Committee and I commented as to what effect this would have on the town if one or both were approved and what its USP might be.

My question has been partially answered by the growth in the leisure sector such as bars, coffee shops and other forms of eateries. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this. The general opinion in town is that people would rather a shop be taken and trading than be left empty. I used to sit outside Serendipity in Bircherley Green and watch customers walk into the travel agent on one side or into the bookshop on the other whilst they or their partner waited to be served. There is a welcome symbiosis between the two different sectors.

However of late the balance seems to be towards more coffee shops, drinking establishments and hair and beauty bars than the traditional retail offer such as we used to know as ‘butcher, baker and candlestick maker’.

It is fine to come to Hertford for a coffee but when traders, residents and long time associates in town start to question what there is in Hertford to make anyone want to visit, it is time to question where this lack of a retail offer is leading.