The experience of Hereford shows that we need to think much harder about the future of our country towns and their commercial life, argues Ptolemy Dean.
The River Wye meanders through a lush and rolling countryside to reach the walls and red-sandstone cathedral of Hereford. This is a marvellous city, with a dense layout of principal streets that thread like convulsing blood vessels into a large market place at its heart, known as High Town. Recently cleared, re-paved in proper stone and theatrically lit, this space with its shops and cafes can be enjoyed by all visitors to the city. Encountering it after hours is like wandering into a magical and abandoned stage set.
There are many other shops, however, in the city centre. Extending away from the High Town are the usual sorry array of 1960s and 1970s shopping precincts. Bleakly angular and rectilinear in layout, they have none of the old palpitations in layout of the old town.
What’s worse, they’ve aged badly. Cheaply constructed, their precincts are now inconvenient for modern retailers, despite the efforts to widen access roads and clear the former historic backlands to create arid and lifeless service and delivery yards. Here, at least, the bin lorry can turn around without having to reverse. In addition, their poor proportions and mean construction have made them inflexible and increasingly unable to meet the improving expectations of modern retailing. This story is repeated across the majority of ancient towns in Britain.
As a result, at Hereford, a heart bypass on the historic centre is planned. Outside the city walls, a new shopping centre is being constructed. This massive concrete superstructure, occupying the site of an old livestock market, is now rising next to the encircling ring road that had originally been designed to provide ease of access to the city centre. Now, the road dives straight into this new retail centre, avoiding the old city altogether.
As the ring road is so ugly, the architectural demands of the new shopping centre have been inexpensively satisfied by thin veneer sections of stretcher brickwork, cement render and timber planking. Inside, the shops can be as large or as small as they need to be and the increasingly huge juggernaut lorries that deliver to them need never again trouble the old city streets. A bin-lorry driver’s paradise.
From a retailer’s point of view, this must surely be a perfect solution and, if only someone had thought of this in the first place, they could have saved much of historic Hereford, whose demolition now seems so needless and short-sighted. But all of this raises a fundamental question. If our old city centres aren’t going to be used for shopping any more, what will they be for? What will become of those desolate shopping precincts once the shops have made their inevitable exodus and they are left boarded up?
The answer should, in theory, be straightforward. Cities such as Hereford should return to being what they once were, for people to live in. But modern housing developers will not want to touch them— designing the houses that people might want to live in will need care and trouble in the awkward medieval geometries of old Hereford. It would be so much less costly and so much more profitable if they could be allowed to roll out a field or two of existing boxy standard-prototype houses in the green fields of the Wye valley at the edge of the city. There would be no demolition costs, either.
This means that the Government, evangelical as it is about the need to build houses, should be looking very carefully at Hereford, because the revival of its historic centre as a residential town can’t be left to the free market alone. New family town houses in central Hereford will need gardens, schools, doctors, shops and cafes—indeed, all the facilities that are offered in the city already, so there is a com- munity that is waiting to be formed.
None of the above are supplied in the sprawling fields of modern housing estates that Nick Boles, the planning minister, and the housing developers think will be the answer to all of our housing problems. If we had a planning minister whose heart was really in his calls for the new communities that need to be built, Hereford could become an exemplar for how our old towns could be revived and given new heart. Instead, if Mr Boles gets his way, the remaining already demoralised planners will be dis- enfranchised, the developers will build as cheaply as they can get away with and Hereford’s old centre will be left to rot, its obvious potential hopelessly unfulfilled. An entirely avoidable case of cardiac arrest.