Vague ramblings

Cloud Cuckoo Land over coffee shops

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 3 April, 2014

So, I had this published in my local paper this week (online version here). I am dreadfully disappointed that St Albans Civic Society, an organisation that did awesome work in the 1970s to save the City from a monstrous retail scheme (that would certainly have become a white elephant by now), has left its thinking in those by-gone days. Anyone who works around the M25 knows that smaller towns have real difficulty maintaining any form of vibrancy. Given the choice between cafe culture and the unholy trinity of pound stores, betting shops and travel agents, I know where I stand.

And that is the real choice.

Sirs,

What a pity that the Civic Society and a sadly predictable group of worthies have decided on such an utterly wrong-headed attitude towards Caffe Nero’s planning application.

The Society that fought so valiantly over the future of Chequer Street back in the 1970s and early 80s unfortunately seems to be stuck in those days. Let’s be very clear: there is no future for St Albans city centre as a major shopping centre. The moment passed a long time ago and only the lunacy of the pre-credit crunch era gave false hope. Its units are mostly too small and the nearby competition too fierce.

Look at the evidence to see our real choices: PoundWorld and 99p Stores at the top of St Peter’s Street and Poundland in The Maltings. I’ve nothing against any of these stores – they fill an economic need – but let’s not pretend they are a sign of vitality in a town centre. We have even seen a loss of retail to a new hotel and there’s a pawn broker next to The Boot.

Is that what you want?

Or St Albans can move to encourage things that let people hang around a bit. Coffee shops are where young mums meet up for a chinwag, where self-employed people (like me) go for a bit of a break or for informal meetings, or where professionals go for to get free of the distractions of the office, taking advantage of the WiFi ; where we can catch up with friends without being surrounded by booze (that really matters to some of us); they are where students like to sit and write essays. And then there are those who just like coffee, or the assortment of snacks they also sell.

The landlords of the old Monsoon unit tried to let it to a retailer – which had outbid Caffe Nero – but the deal fell through. Sorry, but landlords are as entitled to a viable business as anyone else.

It is a little unseemly see an organisation with the heritage of the Civic Society rabble-rousing against a company going about its lawful business. The business world has never been more brutal, and St Albans is too small to be big and too big to be Berkhamsted-style small.

An outbreak of cafe culture would do the power of good – yes, let it spill out onto the streets, let them play music, hold poetry readings, host local arts groups, and more. It may not be the only viable option to pound stores and betting shops, but it is the one on the table and there is no-one else coming over the hill to save us. We don’t have time to stand on past glories, because the past is where they are.

So instead of trying to preserve it is aspic, perhaps the Civic Society could start thinking how to exploit its coffee shops – and all the other eateries – to bring people to spend time our beautiful city.

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