A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Edgar Street Grid – The Compelling Case for Regeneration of Hereford – By James Langford

In Home Affairs on October 28, 2009 at 1:11 am

For years we have talked, for years we have tried, for years we have tossed and turned but now this year – 2009 – is the year! In November the sacred ESG project will come to a climax – it’s make or break time… This is for two reasons: plans for the new “link” road will be with the Northern area planning sub – committee of the council and of course there is the full meeting of the council where the project as a whole will be discussed and continued approval of all aspects will be shown.

However let’s take a step back – what is this project all about and why will it benefit Hereford? In this article I will attempt to answer both of these fundamental questions as well as addressing criticisms and finally I shall come to deal with the recently founded “It’s our City” campaign.

So the ESG Ltd. is the company responsible for delivering the re-development of the cattle market area of Hereford. One’s first question will inevitably be what is happening to our fantastic cattle market? The simple answer is at this point I don’t know – let me explain: The initial plan was to move the cattle market to a more suitable location (sites have been identified in West Hereford – some as close as the Roman Road area).

The concept has provoked a mixed reaction within the farming community – most however don’t mind. I should add that it is estimated this move will cost the council up to 10 million of our very important pounds. Then Paul Keetch (MP for Hereford from the Lib Dem party) came along – he has directly questioned whether we in fact need a cattle market at all and whether we are legally obliged to provide one? As of yet there has been no official decision on this matter. Paul’s reasoning indicates that the 2003 Local Markets Act may not make it obligatory for us to provide a market in Hereford. If this is the case it would save us £10 million and farmers wouldn’t be left short as there are plenty of other markets in our county towns and adjacent counties to trade in. It seems from the local newspaper’s letter pages that this proposition is not so popular. Anyway this debate continues…

So what will we do with the old market area and it’s surroundings? There is a huge master plan for the cattle market site stretching over Merton Meadow car park going across all the way to Widemarsh street including the St. Catherine street area. A project of this scale has never been done before in Hereford and total costs are just below £1 billion.

There are numerous things we want to do with this area. We can classify this into the civic, housing, leisure, retail, transport and University areas. I will deal with each one in turn. What does civic re-development compose of? This means a new council headquarters (they are currently operating out of 3 different centers in Hereford and would like to move together all into one). The Police would also like a new and bigger headquarters in Hereford to co-ordinate their CID operations. More controversial is the idea of a new library – this is a popular idea – but it has been difficult to negotiate through (and comes hand in hand with the usual problem of funding) and at the moment I cannot guarantee this will appear in the final plans.

Other controversies include whether the council really will downgrade to just one bigger office and will it really be best suited on the grid? I really don’t know the answer to this but there is still time to decide and i’m sure the officers of the council will be exercising due diligence when composing their plans. I must also add that there are also plans for a new information center (council run I believe) which will be appearing on the grid. This should replace Garrick House’s function and take on some of the work a Tourist Information Center.

Next is housing. There is no question that more houses have to be built in Hereford to fulfill national government guidelines. No one can stop this. The Sanctuary group have been chosen as our housing development partners – they have a very good track record of success. Our plans allocate space for housing but we do not know (as it is still being negotiated) what types of housing we will get. We do know that a significant proportion will be classed as “affordable.” The market is crying out for affordable housing – the recession has frozen the housing market and it is only through the provision of affordable housing that we will be create a pathway for first time buyers to once again enter the market.

Inevitably some housing will be classed as premier with flats and family homes also going into the mix. A balance is needed to make the project commercially viable – profit margins are of course highest at the upper end of the market. In similar re-development projects (particularly in the north and Wales) when housing has been included it has not sold well. I am confident this will not be the case in Hereford – we all know the stereotypes – it’s a desirable place to bring up children and a popular 2nd home location with the highest proportion of millionaires than any other county. The housing market may have slowed down in Hereford but by no means are we at the blunt end of this recession.

Thereafter we have the leisure developments. I haven’t yet met anyone who is against the idea of a multiplex cinema for Hereford. This will happen. 3 major cinema chains are already in discussions and will be putting together bids. Very very few object to us trying to find other leisure facilities – this is something which I am involved in with ESG – many want an ice rink and while it seems unlikely that it would be commercially viable to install a permanent rink in the city but there are other options open to us. More recently the idea of a music venue has appeared – this would certainly be popular with students – and I don’t think we would have problems attracting bands or audiences. The more important question is how to make such a project financially feasible and who would run the center? It is unlikely local government would be volunteering to do this thus a private sector partner is required.

What else can we offer? With housing comes the need for space and we will certainly look to create new green space in the form of a park with a children’s play area. More ambitiously we are hoping to create a canal which would enhance the atmosphere of the whole development. It will make the housing more attractive to have such facilities on it’s doorstep.

Retail. So this is where the real controversy starts along with transport – before I take this on I’ll quickly talk about the University prospects. A bid has been submitted for Hereford to have higher education facilities – we will be working in connexion with the Universities of Worcester and Gloucestershire. A campus will be built – almost exactly on top of what is Merton Meadow car park at the moment. The university will pioneer interactive learning and will not aim to compete the traditional elite – instead it will focus on modern concerns and will also be well suited to Herefordshire with proposed courses examining agriculture and sustainability. Our first attempt failed but ESG (working closely in particular with Jesse Norman) will persevere towards a successful bid.

A few things need to be clarified on this matter. The university will bring massive investment into the county through research funding as well as growth. It will focus on what Herefordshire’s all about which means the investment will affect real people in the county and not just an academic elite. Job prospects will come from the innovation which the research will produce.

Another point is that the university does not aim to retain young people who have grown up in Herefordshire. Of course these people will want to migrate and experience life elsewhere and it is that same philosophy which means young people will come to Hereford to study and settle. This will be the first time ever Hereford has provided a major incentive for youngsters from elsewhere to come into the county. After graduation – some will stay and others will go – but this is a better position than we’ve ever been in.

Back to controversy. No one denies that we must improve transport and retail facilities in Hereford. The city center is dying – there are over 50 empty shops and far too many cheap rental charity shops as well as the abhorrent pound shops. It is our belief that the only way we can re-invigorate retail in Hereford is to increase the offering we have available – that means more shops and more recognizable shops. We need a department store as well as a much broader spectrum of the well known high street chain names.

Many will say fine – so why not put these into high town? The reality is we neither have enough units nor the right sized units. People scream that we could put Debenhams in Chadds – no we couldn’t – they’ve assessed it and they just don’t have the right sized space. I should also add that Kirsty Chadd has declared that she believes Chadds would still be trading today is the ESG project had come 10 years sooner.

The next thing people will say is so why not do what H and M did and amalgamate a couple of empty units. I ask these people to please point out exactly where there are enough empty units to give enough space for a department store to move in? Then these people will inform me that we can re-develop High Town as a whole and bring the area behind the Green Dragon into play. There are several points to note here: we’re already re-developing high town and as for the back of the green dragon – we’d have to knock down every building and start again – which grade 2 listed building would you propose we knock down first?

This brings me to what we propose. That is the entire re-development of high town and an additional expansion. Some attempts have already been made at re-paving high town and I can assure you everyone wants to get rid of the neon lights by the Black and White house… New plans have just been drawn up to restore Widemarsh street to a state of splendour and plans are in the making to restore the ButterMarket to its original state with the focus being own the trade of high quality fresh local food. Many ButterMarket traders have not endorsed this as their own range of products does not necessarily fit into this model but that does not mean they will be forcibly removed.

High town will also benefit from an expansion opposite Widemarsh street currently where the main halls of the cattle market are located. I emphasize this is NOT a second city center neither is it a retail park development. It is merely some new units (approximately almost an extra 400,000 square foot of retail space). This will allow for the space which the department store and other high street names will require. Many names have already expressed interest including Debenhams and a John Lewis / Waitrose combination. Of course independent retailers are welcome to take up units in this area as well.

On the point of John Lewis people are tired of hearing “they’re coming” when of course they never have come. What is different in this case? It’s the prospect of a John Lewis / Waitrose combined… The offering of a Waitrose is very very attractive to many Herefordians as we value high quality delicacies which normal supermarkets are unable to provide. Waitrose has a better range than both Marks’ and Sainsburys. Once people are into the shop they will spend in the shop thus the range of products that John Lewis offer will sell.

Undeniably some shops (Next, TK Maxx and Boots) are very likely to vacate their current high street stores and open up with bigger units in the new area. This is not to be frowned upon and it does not mean high town is going to die. It shows that there is a greater demand for the products of these shops and thus as is deemed appropriate by basic economics the companies will look to meet this demand with increased supply.

This expansion of High Town will re-invigorate Hereford and combined with the leisure complex it will give Hereford a whole new dynamic. Such improvements are bound to attract new shoppers and bring back those who we have lost. Currently millions of pounds spent by Herefordians are being handed over to Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham. Now many will still enjoy the odd day out but we will gain back a significant part of this lost revenue if we are offering the same shopping facilities.

Think how much we lose in terms of cinema tickets by not having that multiplex cinema? If several small towns can sustain a multiscreen and Worcester can sustain two, Hereford should have no problem. While I am aware that when giving money to national companies the majority will leave the county of origin, I want us to stop handing it over to other counties and cities. I’ve mentioned new shoppers – I hear you asking from where? It is almost certain that the mid Wales market is still very much up for grabs. Hereford is closer than both Shrewsbury or Cardiff and a more popular destination given our cultural aspects such as the charming Cathedral.

Therefore for all of this to happen we must finally improve our outdated transport system.
The first stage of this is to create some joined up thinking on public transport. This will appear in the form of a transport hub located in front of the train station. Here you will find trains, buses (both local and national) and taxis. At the moment these things are dotted around the city which is ineffective and particularly bad for people who find it difficult to commute between them on foot with heavy shopping etc. At the same time Park and Ride must be introduced to encourage the use of public transport and to keep motorists out of the city.

In terms of roads the internal road map is already arcane and there is little that can be done to improve this; however for this project to work some very important changes must happen. It is unquestionable that if the project was to go ahead in the form I have described it would bring an increased traffic flow to that area of town and hence the roads must be altered to accommodate this. The main changes are to downgrade Blueschool Street and to create a new “relief road” which will connect Edgar Street to the bottom of Aylestone Hill.

The new relief road is necessary to deal with simple fact that there will be increased traffic in the area – there is very little that can be done to stop this. Opposition has arisen due to the uncertainty of how this road will work – there is a concern if the traffic is not managed properly at the Aylestone Hill end it will cause gridlock which is a phenomenon already regularly experienced by Herefordshire motorists.

Finally I shall mention that to fully get traffic flowing in Hereford we must obtain funding for our outer distributor road. The council applied and were told no as they have not decided whether to go east or west. I have been thinking about this and in my opinion east is best. This would take traffic from the Ross Road along the new Rotherwas link road and then across the Lugg Flats ending on the Worcester road. This would keep the highest proportion of cars possible away from the congested city center. The argument against this  comes from both Historians and the green lobby who say such a project would do untold damage to an area of natural conservation with endless historical significance. I’m sorry but at some point we will have to build such a road…

These are our plans – this is what ESG is all about. One part of a wider regeneration agenda to bring Hereford and Herefordshire to life again. However many still do not believe in our cause and most recently (and unexpectedly) a group has formed known as the “It’s our City” campaign founded by the Independent Councillor for central ward – Mark Hubbard. It’s an extraordinary combination of people – Independent councillors working with the Hereford Labour Party, Civic Society and certain businesses. I for sure could not have predicted such alliances would ever have been formed and all credit to Cllr Hubbard for actually doing something.

However this is where my praise for the “It’s Our City” campaign stops. The official mantra of the campaign is to support all aspects of the ESG project bar the new link road and retail supplement. This may sound desirable but it is impossible to achieve…

Where, oh where, will we get the money from?

It is the private sector investment gained from allowing the retail development which forms the financial back bone for this whole project. What’s more – it is the link road that makes this whole project practical – ensuring Hereford doesn’t fall into highway chaos which is worse than we already have.

Subsequently one has to ask – what is the “It’s our city” campaign really all about? Surely they have already fulfilled their aim now that the retail sector development is going to be reviewed with new consultation. Yet they are still planning to march on the council in November no doubt calling for the end of the retail sector. The people who are running this campaign have very different ideas to the people supporting it.

If “It’s Our City” are truly what they say they are now is the time for them to stop campaigning against ESG and the Council. We’ve got some time now to reflect on retail development and lots of new ideas are being bounced around. There is a place at the table for the “It’s Our City” team and through debate a compromise has to be reached.

If this doesn’t happen then these people are guilty of jeopardizing the very future of our city. That is a crime against every citizen of every future generation of our city.

Our young people are rejoicing, their future is on display – the stars are on offer. What I and other members of my generation have dreamed of the new generation see as a reality. ESG, and the accompanying regeneration is all about spurring a social revolution. We want to change the image of Hereford forever. No more lagging behind, no more wishing we had, no more failure. This my friends is our city and it’s our time! Now let’s use it to make up for all the lost time…

  1. James.. a voice of sanity in the wilderness. Your comments are based on facts and evidence not emotion and scaremongering. I agree that if ESG does not proceed it will allow shops such as Next, Argos and one other I believe, to move to Holmer Road Retail Park.. I know this because local councillors objected to a planning application to the move in 2007 and at apeal it was turned down because of the ESG plans.. If ESG stops IOC will be to blame for a mega split in the city!!

    • Did Herefordshire Council not grant planning permission for the Holmer Road Retail Park in the first place?

      I question logic when the same council is worried that Argos and Next will move to the said retail park. Quite frankly they, particularly Argos, are ideal tenants. Who wants large box retail delivery and distribution right in the heart of the city.

      I am perplexed that the councils left and right hand does not appear to know what it is doing.

      Firstly, it gives a land use planning approval for out of centre large retail units at Holmer Road, then it says no to tenants who want to move from the city into them, then it says we need more large retail floor plate opportunities as there are non in the city centre – is it me?

      Garry Thomas Nov 2009

  2. A report high on hope yet lacking in research and evidence. You may wish to read PPS 6 and PPS 25. You may also wish to find out about the air quality management area in the city.

    You might like to look to what is done in other cities where such heritage, to which you refer, is used to inform and enhance development and is not left to gather dust or be erased – which are the only options you appear to advocate.

    You might like to consider that for years the Chadd family actively blocked competition here in Hereford. You might also like to consider sustainable development which is about, building on what we have to ensure future generations are not compromised in meeting their own needs, it is not about erasing parts of cities to create a vision with dubious outcome – I fear that your bright lights and shopping cathedral is not befitting of a cathedral city in need of regeneration. Are you advocating that your contemporaries have a future in shelf packing and serving late night pop corn?

    Garry Thomas Nov 2009

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