29 March 2021
OLD RIVER LANE
Since you have made disobliging comments about the Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation in your last two editorials, I wonder if I might set the record straight about our approach towards the development of Old River Lane (ORL).
The Hendersons scheme was sprung upon the town at a time when the District Plan then in force envisaged no development on the site at all. The trend towards on line shopping, now accelerated by the Covid pandemic, was obvious even then, and we feared that the most the development would ever achieve would be to empty the shops in South Street. Hendersons never found a tenant for the department store and would only have been able to acquire the Waitrose car park through a Compulsory Purchase Order. These issues, rather than any delay resulting from the Civic Federation’s actions, persuaded Hendersons to sell up. But, to the extent that we helped them reach that decision, your readers might think that we did the town a favour by saving the ORL site from a redundant shopping precinct.
We now have a new District Plan, adopted by East Herts Council in 2018. This plan makes no provision for a multi storey car park on the site where it is now being built. It does envisage development at ORL. It says firstly that a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) will be produced to inform the masterplanning of the site. Last year, East Herts Council decided that the SPD would be produced, and the public consulted about it in the autumn of 2020. We are still waiting for it, although masterplanning appears to be carrying on regardless.
As to the uses of the site, the District Plan says that it will involve
‘the creation of a high quality mixed use development of retail, leisure uses, along with a ‘civic hub’ of other commercial and community uses such as a GP surgery and B1 office floorspace.’
These are the words East Herts Council used itself to describe its aspirations for the site. There is no mention of a theatre or cinema.
When planning permission was sought for the multi storey car park, it was described as an enabling development – a means of freeing up ORL for development. The Civic Federation argued at the time and still believe that, since it was integral to the development of ORL, it should have been considered as part of the overall development of the site, so that any public benefit arising could be weighed up against the undoubted harm that the car park is causing to the conservation area, and the impact on the road network could be properly assessed. The Council was progressing its plans for ORL in parallel with the car park scheme and so could easily have promoted the two together. But, with the piecemeal approach to planning permission adopted by the Council, we now have a car park under construction, waiting for a development of uncertain content to come along to justify its existence.
The ORL site has never been developed. It is the last major town centre site available for development and is in such a sensitive position that only the best will do, in contrast with our previous experience of town centre developments. Spending taxpayers’ money on the wrong scheme, simply for the sake of getting something done, can hardly be described as investment or as an enhancement of the public realm.
So the Civic Federation are simply asking that the Council follows the policies in its adopted District Plan. In the first place, this means publishing and consulting on an SPD for the site before finalising the content of any development. I venture to suggest that if it does this, it will discover that a second cinema and another block of flats will not feature in many people’s wish list.