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?

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.