From 'half-baked' to a New Town - did planners keep their promise to make Hatfield a 'pleasant land'?

Hatfield Town Centre has reopened four weeks after lockdown. Picture: Charlotte McLaughlin

Hatfield Town Centre has reopened four weeks after lockdown. Picture: Charlotte McLaughlin - Credit: Archant

When considering the original post-war redevelopment plan, the MP for Hitchin declared that Hatfield was one of those "half-baked" places that "grew up without any centre or any plan at all".

Philip Asterley Jones was contrasting the development of the town to the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City while the New Towns Act of 1946 was being read.

He was not alone in this sentiment, with Scottish MP Gilbert McAllister calling it a "shocking development at Hatfield".  

Hatfield subsequently became the ninth New Town, although it was not actually designated until May 1948, and in the 1960s the Commission for New Towns finally set about making areas of England "a pleasant land". 

The Hatfield Herald's Civic Week supplement published on July 11 1969

The Hatfield Herald's Civic Week supplement published on July 11 1969 - Credit: Archant

The Hatfield Herald (a previous version of the WHT) even ran several supplements during civic week, every year, celebrating the changes to the town. This included new shopping centres, the Queensway tower block, a £300,000 swimming pool, an idea of a Hatfield Town FC stadium - an issue again in Hatfield - and the new neighbourhoods cropping up everywhere.

The town was very much on the map with lots of employment - and "a very far cry from the days when the Bishop of Ely found the need to provide food and drink for 200 poor and needy at the gates of Hatfield House," according to a 1965 edition of the Hatfield Herald.

The neighbourhood and communities in the Town Centre, the Ryde, Birchwood, Roe Green, Oxlease, Hilltop and South Hatfield are still thriving and going strong, but the shopping parades and community centres have not lasted the test of time. 

As local resident Sharon says: "You had everything at the Hilltop when I was growing up, all the shops, hairdressers, baby clinic, playgroup, youth club. Really you never needed to go to town, It's such a shame to see it now but some areas of Welwyn Garden City fared no better. Woodhall had the same when we moved there, even all four banks, and look at that now."

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And in recent years, the Brutalist sparse architecture that features in the town and shopping centres has left some residents feeling that Hatfield lacks that enclosed green space when compared to Welwyn Garden City.

Hatfield born and bred Marion "saw a magnificent bustling town all through the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, descend into what we see today. A concrete jungle of university buildings and student housing with lots of carparks".

"Banks and Post Offices closing down with just a few wonderful shops or chemists etc that are still with us today. Plus the little cafes that supply superb food. All the other shops of diversity have left. In fact if it wasn't for the warmth of the Hatfield residents, it would be a town lacking in soul. Thank goodness for the residents."

Bill Hussey, who moved from the old Nissan huts camp in North Mymms to a new house on Talbot Road in 1953, said: "Hatfield was lovely at that time. There were fields and farmland surrounding it and the new estates at Hilltop, Bishops Rose and Cavendish were still all fields.

"Our milk was delivered by horse and cart which one of our neighbours used to follow up the road to hopefully gather some manure from the horse for his garden.

"They were wonderful times, kids could roam all day without fear or worry as there was minimal traffic and front doors were never locked. A different world from today."

Roe Green parade

Roe Green parade - Credit: Kevin Wright

Hatfield is not alone in this, according to the Centre for Retail Research, more than 11,000 major high street outlets have gone bust from 2008 to 2018, affecting almost 140,000 employees, but its own change may have its route deeper in the unique history of the town.

List of shops in Hatfield town centre during the 1980s

List of shops in Hatfield town centre during the 1980s - Credit: Hatfield Town Centre Study of 1983

British Aerospace, formerly de Havilland's site, closed its doors in 1993 when around 2,500 people were still working at Hatfield but redundancies started well before this date.

Yvonne, who worked at British Aerospace Dynamics, an offshoot of BA, for eight years, and was very happy there, told the WHT: "I only left because it closed down in 1989, never thought l would see men and women in tears, some had been working there since they left school, and in my opinion that was the start of Hatfield going downhill."

The site was sold for commercial development as a business park and residential housing.

Since the 1990s, there have been many attempts to improve Hatfield, which is up next

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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