When one door closes … another slams shut in your face !

June 13 2015

This is an update on events in Hertford over the past four weeks or so, from a very personal point of view. So, take a deep breath and read on.

Two weeks ago I popped into Colin Sykes’ jewellers shop to thank him for his friendship over the years and to wish him well for the future now that he is retiring and the shop is closing. He told me that he would still be around for a few weeks to tidy up etc but that another jeweller will be opening in his place (still empty April 2016 but finally occupied October 2016).

He has been trading in Hertford since 1980 – I remember his shop being in Maidenhead Street which became Artico and is now a bar dispensing milk shakes. This is 35 years trading in the town. There are not many left who can boast of that longevity. I refer to the remaining traders as ‘Last Man Standing’ when I see one. Soon, one might well be.

Last week I bought a wedding present from Ashleys in Maidenhead Street. I always refer to the lady there as Mrs Ashley. She tells me she just works there but I often pop in for a chat. They have been trading there since 1992 – 23 years! I didn’t know that. It seems to be one one those shops that is always there. But not for much longer. The shop will close at the end of June 2015.

Quite a few years back they applied for permission to change the premises from retail to a coffee shop. The application was refused on the grounds that Maidenhead Street was coloured red in the 2007 and 2013 District Local Plan (starting at Mill Bridge and incorporating amongst others Salisbury Square and Railway Street and of course Bircherley Green) designating it as only for prime retail. Fair enough but it did not stop Rose Opticians from becoming Cafe Nero just a few months previous. On the basis so I was told that they turned over more take away coffees than were drunk in the shop. Mind, it did take six months to work that one out by which time the enforcement notice was conveniently ignored as all such notices have been ignored by all the coffee shop chains the length and breadth of the British Isles. I looked it up at the time. Now we have Costa Coffee, a milk shake bar, a Turkish restaurant and a coffee bar.

I do not know what will happen to the shop once Ashleys leave (empty and boarded up April 2016). It may join the long list of empty premises such as MacDonalds, Bob Hill, Marquee Centre, Michaels Jewellery and so on. It may become a ‘drinking establishment’ going by the bright lemon yellow planning sticker on the window of the old picture framing shop in Fore Street next to Deja Vu. Boy, do we need another drinking establishment. Obviously.

I once attended an East Herts Council Community Matters session at which I asked one of the Officers that ‘all things being equal’ if I wanted to open another bar, pub or drinking establishment was there anything in the rules that said I couldn’t. His reply was a resolute ‘No’. I recall Councillor Russell Radford and myself being quoted in the Mercury calling for a Local Plan for Hertford where it might be possible to limit pubs or hairdressers or nail bars to a certain percentage. So many years on and a Local Plan is still not even a dot on the horizon.

Anyone who has read any of the previous pages on this thread will know that I have been going on about the decline in Hertford’s retail offer and as a County town for some time. I was hoping that one of the candidates in the May local elections would knock on my door so that I could ask what they intended to do about it. No one did. In fact we have lived here since 1996 and not one candidate has even knocked on my door looking for my vote. Perhaps there is a secret chalk mark warning them off.

And so as sure as night follows day we move on to Waitrose. I do not know what is happening here. I throw my hands up in the air. The application by Van Hages to build a superstore – believed to be Waitrose – was approved by the Management Development Committee as the last act of a Council at the end of its term. It was a bizarre sort of meeting. Why would a senior councillor propose quite strongly that the application be approved knowing it was counter to his own planning officer’s recommendation, national planning policy and by default would be called in at a mammoth cost to council. No question mark. I don’t know.

Even more bizarre was that on the day before the vote all Councillors received an email from Wrenbridge laying down the pros and cons of approving or not the application. It concluded by saying that if the application was approved Wrenbridge would walk away from any future investment in Hertford.

As you may recall Wrenbridge are the lead consultants in a plan to regenerate Hertford and Bircherley Green in particular. This involves bulldozing the whole of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre along with over two dozen shops, kiosks, offices and the bus station and replacing them with eight new retail units and 125 units of accommodation. And a restaurant; for which Hertford is gasping. I do not understand how this represents ‘regeneration’.

Since that night no more has been heard of Wrenbridge or their regeneration scheme so perhaps they meant what they said. I check Google every so often and at the time of writing the Secretary of State has still not called in this application.

Councillor Jane Sartin has started an on line petition requesting that The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government calls in this application. The petition is slowly creeping to her target of 500 signatures. However on reading the comments it appears that most of those who have signed this seem to think that by calling in this the planning approval will be overturned. This is not how it works. I also noticed that many of the signatories don’t even live here. A sample page throws up these geographical locations; Cranfield, Oxford, Northampton, Coventry, London, Weybridge, Silverstone and Ketsch in Germany. What do these people know about the local economy?

I know that on many message boards you can state your country of origin when you first join and some wags will confirm residency of the Shetland Islands or Upper Volta. Or are all these signatories people who have a bee in their bonnet about supermarkets and troll every petition in which the word appears?

It works like this. The Secretary of State decides if there are grounds to refuse the application and if so will refer the planning approval to the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol. They will appoint an Inspector and set a date and place at which the application will be discussed. Both sides employ the services of very expensive barristers and three months later the Inspector will announce his decision.

This is what happened with the Sainsburys application and after months of legal wranglings the approval was upheld. Calling in a planning decision guarantees nothing, for either side.

Whilst this process takes place we creep inexorably towards 2016 when it is believed that Waitrose lease in Bircherley Green will expire. I have heard from a very good source that the lease expires in 2017. But never mind. Waitrose have made it very clear that they do not view the proposals as set out by Wrenbridge as suited to their requirements and have no intention of staying. If you care to look at the recent expansion and building projects undertaken by Waitrose who are the only group actively developing you will see that they prefer to own their own land not rent, stores built to their own specifications and an abundance of parking on the flat. Bircherley Green does not fit this vision.

In the meantime the Council that approved the application has now changed personnel. A new executive, a new Committee and an absolute majority. There is no opposition; there are 50 seats and 50 Conservative members. What will the future hold? More of the same I guess.

As it happened when the application was due to be heard by the new Committee Asda in Ware objected on the grounds of incursion of the Green Belt and the application was withdrawn.

Footnote April 2016. Waitrose is still there but are still optimistic that Van Hages will apply and receive planning permission to relocate there. There has been no news from Wrenbridge. The highly expensive Hertford Vision and Design Strategy carried out by Tibblads on behalf of East Herts Council has been published but has not yet entered the public domain despite nearly everyone in Hertford presenting their views by visiting the exhibition or writing in.

I do have a copy but all it has done is revisit everything that has been discussed and argued over through very committee and strategy group that I know and have attended and come up with nothing new or workable.