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.r1531979602ebrab1531979602nhoj@1531979602tcatn1531979602oc1531979602

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.

Hertford Waitrose closing in September 2017

That thud on the doormat was not the daily delivery of junk mail, nor the latest manuscript submission to a publisher rejected for the second or third time but the other boot finally falling.

That boot is of course the confirmed closure of Waitrose in Bircherley Green in September 2017. It was the only outcome of a process that began in 2014 and should surprise no one. It will of course. It will anger and outrage and ‘Disgusted of Hertford’ will fill the letters pages and message boards for weeks to come.

The Hertford store was always too small for a modern supermarket. It did not have space for all the products that fight for prominence elsewhere; it could not support a coffee bar, sushi bar or wine bar such as other Waitrose stores do. The lifts (nothing to do with the company) were frequently out of action and the car park (once beloved of East Herts Council and now in private hands) was a constant source of complaint. The toilets of course were unfit for human habitation. None of that was Waitrose fault or for the staff to repair.

They said in 2014 that the plans for Bircherley Green as designed and presented by Wrenbridge were not viable for their needs. Their stance never wavered. They wanted their own space, car parking on the flat and access routes.

Waitrose were outbid for the McMullen site that now houses Sainsburys. Despite being Planning Department’s preferred option for Ware the Council Executive plumped for Asda who most conveniently blocked the final application by Van Hages to extend their Ware Garden Centre to accommodate a food store (Waitrose never mentioned).

That site would have suited Waitrose. It would have meant that they could have doubled their floor space to about 26,000 sq ft, incorporated toilets and a cafe and offer parking on the flat. There would have been improved vehicle access for ‘click and collect’ and for the in house delivery teams to deliver orders.

Instead the people of Hertford signed petitions to plead with Waitrose to stay in Hertford even though they had constantly said they did not want to. Finally Asda broke cover and invoked the Green Belt. There are no lambs frolicking through the green grass amidst the piles of timber and paving slabs in Van Hages outdoor selling areas and no combine harvester with lights glaring moves silently at night to bring food to our tables.

The net result is that we have the worst of all worlds, especially if you are a Waitrose customer. No store in Hertford, no store in Ware, you may have to drive to Welwyn or Bishops Stortford and an uncertain future as to what kind of national chain will inhabit the space in the projected designs which will be presented by Wrenbridge shortly as part of the Bircherley Green redevelopment project.

It is often said: ‘be careful what you wish for’. This is what happens when you fail to read the big picture. It is unlikely that the Government will allow for any piece of Green Belt to be re-designated and for commercial building to take place on it. It is likely that it may occur for housing and given that the Gilston Garden Town, previously known as Harlow North will become a reality there ought to be somewhere for people to shop.

Perhaps more effort ought to have gone into persuading government advisors to allow for Van Hages to build on their Green Belt and we might then have a Waitrose supermarket close by with all the product ranges and facilities of a modern store. But this will not happen.

However there is a bright side in all this doom and gloom. When Waitrose finally closes its doors customers may buy their morning paper and Lottery ticket from the independent newsagent, their breakfast coffee from an independent coffee shop and get their dry cleaning done at an independent dry cleaners. Hertford still has a strong independent bias of which newsagents, coffee shops and dry cleaners make up a significant proportion.

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.

The decline in Hertford’s retail offer – Part Two

Where in Hertford can you buy a pair of shoes, ladies underwear or a baby’s potty?

The answer is that you can’t; not if you like your foot to be measured, are a lady of a certain age or have searched all the obvious places like chemist shops. I found the latter item in Messages where you’d least expect to find a baby’s potty. There are no shoe shops left in town and unless you are a young lady with a svelte like figure places to find those essential pieces of clothing are far and few between.

I have just completed an up to date database of the town’s business premises. I last wrote a similar report in 2007 and the town centre profile has changed quite dramatically. There is now almost a total reliance on the service sector. People used to comment that all Hertford had to offer was estate agents, charity shops and hairdressers. In the past it was easy to refute these claims but now the facts are quite stark.

There are 269 retail outlets including Banks of which there are 8. Of those 159 retail premises offering services, 39 are in the health & beauty sector (hairdressers, nail bars, salons etc) and 65 are in the food and drink sector (Bars, coffee shops, takeaways etc). These two sectors alone account for 66% of all service sector businesses. In 2007 this was 55%.

Since I wrote the report the premises once occupied by Clintons Cards is now being rebuilt as a Turkish restaurant, Slades is a restaurant/cafe, East Herts Electrical is a Mens hairdressers, Artico is a smoothie bar and The Decorated Room is to be another smoothie bar (now an Italian restaurant).

There are long standing traders who are about to close. Colin Sykes will retire in May, Michaels Jewellery is to close at the end of February and I know of at least another two long standing traders who are on the point of closing or moving.

What will come in their place? Answers on a postcard.

The revised application by Van Hages for a food store presumed to be Waitrose is due to be considered by Planning Department shortly and we await with breath bated the application from Wrenbridge for the regeneration plans for Bircherley Green. As I have said before either Waitrose will leave for Ware or close its doors for good in 2016; and if Wrenbridge succeed there will be a big hole in Hertford for at least eighteen months – probably more.

In the meantime where is everybody going to go for essential everyday items? Not Hertford. Possibly Harlow, Stevenage or Welwyn Garden City. No one wants to shop out of town but given the lack of depth in Hertford’s shopping offer does anyone have a choice any more?

There is a need for a Local Plan but where is that going to come from? There is an election in May but I doubt if any of the local issues found in this blog will be addressed. At the heart of the matter everyone seems quite happy living here – and that is the real problem. Good schools, good transport links, low crime rates etc etc. At night there are plenty of bars and eateries to suit all tastes but no one is here during the day and no one seems bothered about how the town will look in another 8 years.

 

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.