The many promises to save Hatfield

The 20ft facade collapsed from a council-owned flat above Peacocks in Hatfield. Picture credit: Hele

The façade collapsed in 2017 in Hatfield town centre - Credit: Archant

Since the industrial decline in Hatfield during the 1990s, residents and politicians started examining whether the New Towns worked. 

With the New Town Development Corporation wound up and the town part of Welwyn Hatfield Council, the legacies of the past started to be looked at again.

But even during this period between 1990 and 2000, plans were afoot to develop new areas of Hatfield with the Galleria, expansion of the University of Hertfordshire and Hatfield Business Park being the most notable example. 

The development of the Galleria proved controversial, with developers of the site, the Carroll Group, going into receivership and later it becoming part of a legal battle. Landsec, its current owners, took it over in 2005. 

Hatfield's population was also beginning throughout the 1990s, reaching 29,000 in the early 2000s, which was thousands more than the New Town builders envisioned. This was in part due to the creation of homes at former Aerospace sites and flats near the centre. 

Hatfield university encourages students to take free meningitis vaccine.

Uni of Herts - Credit: Archant

And in 2002, MPs warned of a "spiral of decline" at the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee in "unattractive" town centres, including Hatfield.

They recommended that open spaces and mixed leisure and shopping uses in the town centre needed to be created, housing need to be improved as it was put in a short space of time and there was "excessive" dependence on cars and "poor" bus services. 

A new sweet shop is opening at The Galleria, Hatfield. Picture: Danny Loo

The Galleria in Hatfield - Credit: Archant

As director of the University of Hertfordshire's Urbanism Unit and academic director of the International Garden Cities Institute Susan Parham, explains these new towns were very much designed around the car. 

"The walking and cycling environment is not ideal," Ms Parham told the WHT. "It doesn't make it at all easy to go to the town centre walking today. There was an assumption about how traffic is organised and how fast it ought to go."

She also explained that the lack of a clearly defined space by the low buildings in the town centre, which has gaps, made it less attractive. 

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When asked if the founders should have reconsidered the town a bit more, she said: "It seemed the right thing to do at the time." 

And she maintained that it would be a "shame" if the 20th-century design disappeared as there is a lot of heritage in the way Hatfield has continued to look even today. 

"There have been lots of attempts to plan Hatfield town centre," she added. "But this was very top-down and there was no sense of ownership from local people so it was difficult to make things work."

English Partnerships, a previous government agency focusing on regeneration, responded to the 2002 study saying that work was going on to improve Hatfield town centre and this is when the latest plans emerged. 

There was hope that the earliest that development would likely commence in 2004 and Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council then set about making compulsory purchases of buildings in Hatfield town centre. 

Planning permission for the town centre redevelopment scheme was given in March 2007, several months before the financial crisis hit and Northern Rock had a run on its banks. 

And when Rupert Wood, regional manager for St.Modwen, who were the developers working with the council in 2008, promised they would not be walking away it seemed the project would continue.

Mr Wood said: "It's clear many people in the town were pleased when news of plans to regenerate Hatfield town centre was announced back in 2002 and now feel that the whole process has taken far too long and that the project has been significantly delayed."

But the project was put on hold indefinitely due to the financial crisis. 

However, ideas for the future outlined in Hertfordshire Guide to Growth 2021 did offer Hatfield some glimpse of the future away from shopping streets that were not linked to the travel thoroughfares of the town. 

Ms Parham added: "This really challenged assumptions of what was needed in the town centre and talked about active travel."

Hatfield also even won a bid of £100,000 from the £1.5m Government-funded scheme devised by the Mary Portas, star of the BBC's Queen of Shops in 2012. It provided the town with a portable undercover staging area and events space in the town centre to host community events and activities. 

However, empty shops in Hatfield town centre have continued to be a feature of the town with around 10 per cent empty every year since 2008 until this year, which went up to 16.5 in 2020. 

Next up, what are the council's plans now and its vision for 2030? 

This WHT focus will consider what planning has done for Hatfield, if it has been successful and what we can hope for in the future. It is undertaking this project in light of the numerous letters and comments it has received from people worried about new developments and upset at the legacies of New Town planning. This is also in the context of Hatfield's regeneration speeding up, the anniversaries this year of Breaks Manor, now 70, and the Galleria, now 30, as well as the government's recent promise to 'Build Back Better'.  

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