Open Spaces

Note that in the sections that follow below, reference is made to the Appendices.  These are not shown here but their content can be seen in the “gallery” section. You will find there a series of photographs of the town centre that support this submission and show aspects of the town centre that need to be addressed.

In the last quarter of 2009 WHBC produced a consultation asking for public feedback on how it should manage all open spaces in the Borough going forward.  The Council website has a little more information about this HERE, but all of the links to further information on that page appear to be broken.  WHBC has a duty to seek participation of residents and local civic groups in such matters.

The Society made a submission to the consultation and those comments, along with other relevant documents, can be read below.  We look forward to the results of this consultation being published soon.

Open spaces generally

Here we  are setting out the Society’s views in response to the Borough’s invitation to us and others to comment on its proposed Open Space Strategy but please note that the section covering civic spaces is made as a joint submission with the Chamber of Commerce.  The Council’s strategy document in question can be downloaded below (5Mb file):

Open Space Strategy Document

Whilst the Council has stated that this document is a key component of the over-arching environment strategy, we are concerned that there is no reference to the Tree Strategy.  We comment specifically about this below as we do not think that the current tree strategy can be ignored when considering the Borough’s open spaces.  It is crucial to the overall; it is central to the “garden city” concept,  and recent events have clearly demonstrated that there is something substantially amiss with it.  It requires urgent reappraisal.

Nothing illustrates the need to consider environmental strategy as integral to planning and vice versa than the view down Parkway from The Campus.  Here, a landmark vista known throughout the world, has been needlessly marred by an error in granting planning approval to a communications’ mast within the Hertfordshire Constabulary HQ at Stanborough.  It is essential that the issue of open spaces is seen as an integrated totality combining the natural and built environment.

This submission is made to help highlight the need for detailed action plans which can be put into effect to deliver an improved and co-ordinated local environment over the next decade.  Our response is generally seen from the perspective of Welwyn Garden City but we think many of the points that are made can have a general application across the Borough.

The Tree Strategy

We refer specifically to the WHBC document dated January 2007.  We think this is a key part of the environmental strategy; it can be downloaded below.  Please note that the content that follows is repeated under Tree Strategy listed in the Contents section:

WHBC Tree Strategy

Responsibility for trees

The events in Stanborough Park and the loss of Poplars both there and in the centre of Welwyn Garden City suggest that the existing document is inadequate to support the Borough’s environmental strategy.  We suggest the document is reviewed immediately.  Our reasons for this are as follows:

In paragraph 3.4, it states that the Council is not directly responsible for trees in “private gardens” or in Borough open spaces managed by Finesse (the areas are then specified).  We think that the inclusion of both these responsibilities within the same heading of “not directly responsible” is deeply flawed.  Responsibility for trees that belong to householders is wholly different in nature to the responsibility that purports to be exercised by Finesse.

It seems clear to us that the reason for the poor handling of the trees in Stanborough Park has its origins in the lack of clarity contained in this very section of the strategy.  Based on the experience of Stanborough Park, we do not think that Finesse has the expertise to manage “trees” in any meaningful way and that control should be exercised directly by the Borough.

It would be helpful for the Borough to explain how it feels responsible for “trees” in private gardens.  We imagine it is contained in paragraph 3.5 – in which case the document should say so.

Strategic objectives in tree management

These are contained in paragraph 4.0 but it is our view that the priorities are in the wrong order.

“Conserving the Borough’s distinctive high quality environment”, currently the second objective should be the first objective.  This should be followed by “enhancing the environment”, currently the third objective.  Finally, “managing of the lifecycle of trees” should become the third objective, concerned largely as it is with operational issues though perhaps it may need renaming in view of our other comments.

This is a strategy document claiming to manage the landscape over a twenty year period but currently we believe it to be driven by operational demands, particularly an exaggerated view of risk which is clearly an operational issue.  It seems to be forgotten that some six people on average die from trees falling down every year in the United Kingdom and this figure has remained more or less constant for decades.  No amount of operational management will actually alter that figure as it is already a minute figure in relation to the numbers of people and trees present in the country.

This is not intended to downplay the issue of risk.  This is something that has to be managed but it needs to be placed in a meaningful context.  In the absence of some point of reference, this risk becomes an end in itself and prone to exaggeration by both the Council and by residents who claim their trees are a danger to their health, themselves, their children or their grandchildren.  Generally, the reverse is the case.

Proactive management of risk

The existing strategy claims to manage this risk proactively.  We do not think that it does.  What happens is that when a tree is diagnosed as deceased then it is cut down.  We see that as reactive.  We are not suggesting that cutting down of deceased trees should not take place but this should not be confused with proactive tree management.

We see proactive tree management as managing the landscape over a long timeframe so that replacement trees are brought on to compensate when older trees reach the end of their lives.  Hopefully, this is what will now happen in both the car parks of Stanborough Park.

Whilst the proactive management of all trees within the Borough’s ambit is a wonderful aspiration, we do not think it is possible without substantially more resources than is currently made available to it.  Rather we feel that certain key vistas within the Borough should be managed “proactively”.  The obvious ones are Parkway and Howardsgate in WGC but there are others throughout the Borough.  These should be identified and relevant longer term plans should be drawn up for them and included as an Appendix to a revised tree strategy.  That would focus attention on key areas that cause residents (and the Council) major grief when they are seen to fail.   Such a policy needs to be properly explained to residents from the outset and as it is implemented.

Definition of open space

We are concerned that too often the subtleties of definition are not understood by the general public.  This is manifestly the case where open space becomes playing fields at the expense of what there was before.  So whereas the draft touches on this in terms of King George V playing fields and Moneyhole Park, we think that greater attention needs to be given to the consequences.

The official logic of the definition means that the signs, for example, to “Moneyhole Park” have now become “Moneyhole Playing Fields”.  This follows all the correct processes no doubt but actually what appears to have happened is that the park is now taking second place to playing fields.  We don’t think this is what residents want.  Whilst they are happy to have the area used for playing fields, they feel – increasingly strongly we suggest – that their interests are not being taken into account.  This is particularly galling as many of those using the playing fields actually come from outside the Borough.

The “official” view is then embodied into strategy as follows:

“Despite the fact that both King George V and Moneyhole open space in Welwyn Garden City are enjoyed as parks by many people, their predominant function for the purposes of the Assessment is as an Outdoor Sport Facility”.

Who made this decision?  Were local residents consulted? Did they understand the consequences? Is it surprising that local residents are unhappy at the consequences.

In this example, we see Moneyhole Park as being represented within the following definitions, quite apart from being an Outdoor Sports Facility:

Natural and Semi-Natural Open Space

Parks and Gardens

Provision for Children and Young People

Amenity Green Space

Green Corridors

This particular example also has the effect of the Council totally failing to appreciate the magnificent walk around Moneyhole Park, canopied by trees throughout its length during the summer months.  This is a huge asset to the Borough but it remains a “secret”.  This needs to be changed.

In short, there appears to be good reasons to review the approach taken so far on this example.  There may be others.  Alternatively, the definitions used just illustrate the bureaucratic nature of what is being managed:  it does not seem to allow for sensible thinking and managing effectively for multiple users.

Parks and gardens

The consequence of defining Moneyhole as playing fields continues into – officially – the lack of effective consultation with residents.  Whereas a formal survey was undertaken in King George V and Stanborough Park in July 2008 about their use as parks, no such consultation was undertaken in respect of Moneyhole.  Residents, who are just waking up to the implications, are justifiably angry.

If you read Finesse’s draft strategic plan for 2008- 2012 which is the only version available to us, it provides the following mission statement:

“The provision of high quality, inclusive, value for money and sustainable services, which meet the needs of all local people, provide partnership opportunities, improve the health and safety of the community, contribute to the local quality of life, the environment and economic growth, and develop the Trust’s role in the development of activities and facilities to increase participation in sport, physical and cultural activities.”

Such a politically correct and broad mission statement is barely credible.  (Confusingly, it refers to itself as a Trust, an Industrial and Provident Society and a Company all in the same document).  It even claims to improve the safety of the local community.  It has a reference to the environment but actually the essential stuff of this enterprise is sport and physical activities.  It would appear to have doubtful credentials as regards some elements of the environment, notably, trees.  We do not know if it has the expertise to manage the wooded areas or the gardens nominally under its control.

We remain sceptical of the definition of a good park by the granting of a Green Flag.  It contrasts with the reality of the situation in the north end of Stanborough Park as shown in Appendix 3.  Reliance on bureaucratic standards that somehow say all is well and good, gives management and the Borough a poor reputation.  What appears to be lacking is plain “management by walking about”.

A vision for amenity green space

The words provided are truly wonderful.  The issue lies in execution as our frequent comments on these issues testify.  Our analysis is, and nothing has so far changed our view on this, that effective supervision by the Council of its contractors throughout the town is lacking.

We will cite just another example: we raised with Councillor Gilding the fact that the rose and other flower beds that are scattered about the town of Welwyn Garden City had not been fed with compost or manure for many years.  This explains their anaemic condition in many places.  After looking into the matter, Councillor Gilding confirmed what we already knew: that the Serco contract provides for compost/manure to be put on these beds but it is at the direction of the Council.  However, this had not been done for at least the past four years!  What this tells us is that someone in the hierarchy has simply not known what his or her job entailed and that same person appears never to have gone on “walkabout” just to see what the effect of the Serco contract was.  Had the person responsible done that, it might have just been noticed that the plants were becoming thin and increasingly anaemic and needed action to bring them back to life.

We do not support the notion that residents should join with Serco to do the work the contractor should do in the first place, however commendable this may seem, and even if it is an approach that is supported by the RHS.

Provision for children and teenagers

We think the lack of action in the replacement of Splashlands in Stanborough Park is reprehensible.  It does not look as if the Council has its heart in it and is conveniently taking little or no action because by remaining inactive it saves the Borough money in the meantime.

The original justification for the closure was the condition of the underlying sub strata.  Given that this is still true, we suggest that a water and sand play area is installed for younger children with parents, and a skate boarding facility be provided for teenagers.  Both facilities should be properly fenced and locked after specified hours.

Alternatively, and if the funds cannot be provided for these relatively low cost facilities, we suggest the existing fenced area is turned into a natural wild life area – which it is what is happening by default already.

Allotments

Whilst your draft paper states the amount of allotments that there are per head of population, it does not state the legal requirement that the Borough is obliged to provide.  The legal obligation appears to be an absolute standard based on demand (unfortunately for the Council) but it is unclear from this draft paper as to how close or otherwise it is to meeting the local demand.

We question whether the Borough should be organising talks on promoting organic gardening methods, commendable as this is.  We suggest it is already done by the local Horticultural Association.  Gardeners are largely aware of this and generally have access to the internet or the library, so we think the audience for such talks would, in any event, not be large.  The Council has enough on its plate already without getting into the promotion of such matters.

Civic spaces generally

We do not think that the vision by the Borough on civic spaces is adequate as the Borough’s two town centres are at very different stages of their development.  So we think that there should be two separate papers written as regards town centres.  This submission therefore covers Welwyn Garden City as we do not feel we are entitled (or, indeed, see it as appropriate) to comment on Hatfield’s town centre which is, in any event, the subject of a major redevelopment plan that will hopefully get off the ground when the economic situation improves.

As we stated at the head of this paper, it is not entirely clear if the civic spaces paper is intended as a natural environmental strategy only or whether it takes into account the built environment:  if the former, then it would not fit with the concept of a “garden city”.  Our approach therefore encompasses both the natural environment as well as the built one – which is what we think the town requires.

Our submission on the future of the Welwyn Garden City town centre is made in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce as this element of the submission is jointly prepared by us.

Welwyn Garden City town centre

This section can also be found under the separate heading of “Town Centre” in the listing under Contents.

At first glance all seems well in Welwyn Garden City town centre.  The gardens are well maintained and these take such a prominent profile in Howardsgate that they tend to have an overriding impact on many casual visitors.  However, a closer examination of the town centre reveals the following:

  • Damaged pavements
  • Repairs to street furniture that have not been done for years
  • Repairs to the public realm where inconsistent materials have been used
  • Inconsistent designs and co-ordination of street furniture
  • Increasing street furniture clutter
  • Inadequate enforcement of advertising and planning legislation
  • Poorly finished shop fronts
  • Badly maintained shop fronts
  • Unsuitable repairs to the fascias of buildings
  • Peeling paintwork, particularly on upper floors
  • Broken windows on some upper floors
  • Advertising that is illegally erected
  • Shop front colours that are an affront to the design of the place
  • Shop front designs that sit badly with the designs of their buildings

These issues are covered in more detail in Appendix 1 and they are cross referenced, where appropriate, to the Conservation Area Review dated September 2007 – the bulk of which has not yet been followed through.  We quote from its summary judgement on the general condition of the whole conservation area and built fabric (See Para 168 of the Conservation Area Review) as follows:

“On the whole this is good but there are areas, especially in the town centre, which appear poorly maintained or eroded”.

Both the Society and the Chamber think there is a malaise about the town centre which, unless it addressed now, will surely result in its degradation to just another  nondescript and boring shopping area, albeit possibly with a nice garden and, hopefully, some trees: currently, it is beginning to reflect a lack of attention and civic pride.

What is the Borough seeking to achieve overall in Welwyn Garden City town centre?

This is the key question: just what is the Borough seeking to achieve with this strategic vision?

We suggest that the objective of any vision should be to build an action plan to which all stakeholders can subscribe and which, over time, will result in showing the town centre as being distinctly different from other town centres: thereby attracting a greater footfall to the place.

We think the town centre is already uniquely placed to make this possible as it is situated in a conservation area within a garden city.

We also think it appropriate to market the place properly.

None of this is apparent in the draft vision.  Rather the draft paper is being published as something that has to be done to fit in with the requirement to have an overarching environmental strategy – as the Audit Commission has asked for.

We think this all needs to be taken a stage further.

Too often it seems that an issue is seen as a planning issue rather than in terms of “What are we trying to do around here?”  By looking at each issue in planning terms only, the bigger picture is being lost.  We suggest the seeds for a better vision can be found in the Conservation Review where it states, for example, that too many shop front signs in the town centre are out of keeping with the design and are not subordinate to the architecture.  We think that this simple phrase should guide future strategy on shop fronts but overall, the Conservation Review itself provides a vision of what the town should be aiming at.  The Council should act on it.

Finally, we see the purpose of any vision is to ensure that the town centre is “a nicer place to hang about in”; an expression used to promote the British Retail Consortium’s paper entitled 21st Century High Streets published in July 2009.  This paper is sound reading for what has to be done and also gives examples of what has been achieved in other Boroughs.  It can be downloaded here: 21st Century High Streets

Our vision for Welwyn Garden City’s town centre

The town centre is a conservation area because the place is special in architectural and urban design terms.  The Borough should major on this as the town’s principal means of differentiating itself from the mass of competing town centres.  Currently, it does not appear to have the confidence to do so.  This means taking the lead to ensure the town centre reflects what an agreed vision would be.  However, it is not down to the Borough alone to make a difference.  It requires all stakeholders, including landlords and traders, to agree the way forward and then to do their bit as well.

This will result in a significantly different, and perceived to be different, place from other town centres – that has to be the draw to pull in more people from, as it were, “far and wide” to use the expression used in the Borough’s own draft paper.

Our view is that by consulting with traders, landlords and all other stakeholders, a consensus will be rapidly found to the proposed way forward which is being advocated.  A very material improvement to the already good atmosphere within the town centre will follow – we can push the town centre to be what it really can be: a model of excellence.

Finally, we do not think that these proposals will cost significant amounts of money, rather effort and consistent application.  Largely, it is money that is spent already or has to be committed anyway but what our approach calls for is for the town to get its act together…REALLY WELL.  After all, the town is very well placed in terms of its location and it is already identified as being something special by being one of only a handful of new towns with a town centre as a conservation area.  Hopefully, if the stakeholders can agree a way forward, the Borough will feel able to act with enthusiasm.

Actions by Borough and County

In this section we do not differentiate between County and Borough responsibilities as they need to be undertaken with a clear understanding by both and with the approval of both.  So we are suggesting that they jointly agree that these things should be done.

  1. Nothing should be done in the town centre by the County Council unless they firstly notify the Borough of what they intend.  Too often the county contractor doing the work does not seem to be aware that large parts of the town are within a conservation area and that this area does not lend itself to county wide solutions.  The latest example of putting a tarmac pavement down in Russellcroft Road is a case in point (now being corrected).  The town could do with better co-ordination between the two bodies.
  2. Thought needs to be given to using pavement designs for enhancing the place as is suggested in the Conservation Review in S.84.  The specification for pavements needs to be revised so that the continual problem of broken pavements can be resolved.  This means that where pavements are driven on by lorries (often by the Borough’s own contractors) then they are of a standard that will not break.
  3. The driving over pavements requires coherent and effective action by the Borough’s own parking contractors to enforce the law fully, including when it is broken by cash in transit trucks.  If not, then those pavements they drive over have to be properly reinforced as well.  Cash in transit contractors who work for banks and other bodies need to be reminded that the town was designed from the outset with rear delivery access – which are mostly still available today – but where security can be reinforced with CCTV, if necessary.  The banks are still able to afford this!
  4. The specification for pavements, street furniture and lighting needs to be re-agreed with all stakeholders for the entire town centre and then properly applied.  Appendix 2 carries a damning indictment of the current situation.  It is a consultant’s report submitted as part of Sainsbury’s recent planning submission for its new store.
  5. Repairs to damage to the public realm take too long to be repaired.  This means that damage is often left for months, even years (yes, years) before any repairs actually begin.  It leaves a poor impression on visitors and people therefore wonder if anyone actually cares.  Examples of what we mean are to be found in Appendix 1.  So we suggest that it is in everyone’s interest to find some faster track for town centre repairs to be implemented.
  6. A full appraisal of the street furniture needs to be undertaken with a view to removing street clutter.  This is particularly important as we understand there is some initiative on signage now being considered by the Borough.  This should not proceed until it is fully co-ordinated within this wider strategy for the town centre.

Action by the Borough

  1. The Borough needs to take Article Four directions to enforce both shop front designs and their colour in the town centre.  This should be accompanied by a shop front design guide properly drawn up with expert advice as well as stakeholders.  It is remarkable that such a design guide has not been put in place before as it is commonplace amongst those town centres that do have conservation areas.  Until this is done the entire town centre will remain a conservation area in name only as it cannot otherwise be enforced.  This, for example, explains why the colour of the pub in Parkway has come about and why the planning appeal for the sign above Halfords was allowed.
  2. Effective action needs to be taken to enforce breach of planning laws within the town centre.  There are already two satellite dishes immediately above shop fronts in Howardsgate, for example.  These should be removed.
  3. Effective action needs to be taken to remove advertising and any unauthorised signs from upper floors of buildings or indeed, any level. (eg, the telephone booth at the top of Howardsgate).  The obvious reason for this is that advertisement signs detract from the architecture but, more importantly, the lack of advertising is perhaps the single most important differentiator from the bulk of the UK’s high streets.  It makes for an enormous difference in impact as a visit to any other town centre in a conservation area will demonstrate.  Traders need to have this approach explained to them as it requires, as it were, a degree of self sacrifice in the furtherance of a bigger objective – and they stand to be the biggest beneficiaries.

Action by traders

  1. There are some shop fronts that are dirty and poorly maintained.  Examples are to be found in Appendix 1.  These need to be addressed.
  2. Equally there are some shop fronts where traders have allowed their shop front contractors to leave the job improperly finished.  Examples are to be found in Appendix 1.  These need to be corrected and, where appropriate, the pavements properly reinstated.
  3. There are many repairs to premises which have been done improperly.  Examples are to be found in Appendix 1.  These need to be redone using experienced personnel.  The Council could usefully co-ordinate some activity here.
  4. Where signs have been removed from fascias there are areas where the old wiring has not been removed or the stonework improperly repaired.  Examples are to be found in Appendix 1.  These repairs need to be completed or redone.
  5. Many traders use “A boards” to draw attention to their shops.  Whilst the purist would argue that perhaps the place would be tidier without any A boards at all, we think there is a place for them.  However, it would help the overall look of the place for a standard Welwyn Garden City A board to be adopted by traders that would carry some Welwyn Garden City theme but still enable traders to make their unique pitch to passers by.  This would enhance the quality of the pavement look as well.

Action by landlords/traders

  1. There are some upper floors with broken windows, peeling paint or damaged brickwork or fascias that need to be addressed.  Examples are to be found in Appendix 1.

The night economy

From time to time, the Borough has indicated that it wants to see a better night time economy.  We do not think this is likely to happen if the current approach and policies continue to be followed.  However, we do think if the alternative approach that we are setting out in this paper is pursued, and then there is a much better chance of attracting the likes of Wagamama, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Café Rouge, J. D.  Wetherspoon, or Loch Fyne.  Better management of the town centre, its differentiation  and effective promotion will increase footfall:  that will attract these types of traders.

Promotion

Currently promotion is largely by “events”.

Current events in terms of traders offering “continental shopping” should of course continue as they do seem to attract greater footfall to the place.  We wonder though if the high prices of products at these events may result in lower sales if the Pound continues to be so very weak and this, in turn, could detract traders from visiting.  It might be prudent to consider an alternative approach theme in case this happens.

Signage in the town is not so good and indeed we understand that some review is already underway.  It is essential that any review does not simply add to street clutter and that the signage is agreed with stakeholders before it is finalised.  In particular, we feel that there is inadequate signage and directions for those arriving by train.  There is a lack of good town plans in the town centre for casual visitors.

The poster booths in Howardsgate should be revamped as statements about the town and its place in the world and one should be relocated to the area between NatWest and Nationwide on the route between the Howard Centre and John Lewis.  A separate paper has been sent to Mr Saminaden on this.

It is unclear to what extent the town is promoted in areas outside the Borough.  Borough press releases should be aimed at attracting people from further afield to Welwyn Garden City.

Consideration needs to be given to promoting the town with First Capital Connect as we feel that an opportunity is being lost in promoting a day out here while shopping – the idea being to prolong the visit and encompass a meal.

Consideration needs to be given to properly surveying whether a “farmers’ market” should take place in the town on a regular basis.  There is anecdotal evidence that residents are going to markets in both St Albans and Wheathampstead and neither is in the interest of the Borough or traders in the town.

Conclusion

This paper has been drawn up following contributions from Welwyn Garden City Society members as well as contributions from individual members of the Chamber of Commerce.   It has been based on much research and effort and it is to be hoped that the Council will incorporate its findings into its final strategy document.

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