Vague ramblings

Housing: if only there was a way to encapsulate the problem….

Posted in Life, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 10 February, 2017

So a housing White Paper came out. It called for a wider range of housing providers. Up to a point.

If only there was a single image that encapsulates where the real problem is. If only there were… oh. Wait.

If only there was a way to encapsulate the problem

If only there was a way to encapsulate the problem


Balkanisation: the shape of things to come?

Posted in Life, Musing, Regionalism, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 24 June, 2016

The trouble with economists and political scientists is that they do not understand space. While the notion of borders may seem clear to them, they are not properly trained to understand geography.

So forget the market turmoil and the potential threat to the UK’s dominance in key markets, especially financial. Forget that the UK has chosen to complete its transformation from global superpower to complete irrelevance.

Consider these two maps (you can click for larger versions, or follow the links to the source). The first, from the Guardian, shows the distribution of referendum results, adjusted for population. The source has some interesting graphs as well.

The second, from the BBC, shows the distribution of various immigrant groups (no Scotland because that’s how Census data is published).

In the context of a Leave campaign that was shamelessly (and shamefully) racist, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the areas where people have actually met migrants, day-to-day – worked with them, socialised with them, talked to them are the ones who voted most strongly for Remain – the main exception being Birmingham. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. UKIP’s heartland in the East of England is the part of the country with fewest immigrants (although farming relies a lot of migrant labour).

The big cities and the centres of knowledge voted Remain.

But the largely white, English (not British, English) working classes in areas that have been pretty well bankrolled by the EU voted for Leave and a truly impressive case of cut-off-nose-to-spite-faces.

This white son of a truck driver has written quite often (sometimes intemperately) on the capacity of the white English to find other people to blame for their woes. But, really, it is to do with the crushing of aspiration more than anything. They do not care that our kids will find it harder to travel for work to 27 countries. They (we) are no longer expected to aspire – indeed aspiration is actively discouraged, so when times get tough the fingers get pointed. Compare and contrast with the get-up-and-go of the stereotypical Polish brickie, who could be a poster child for Norman Tebbitt’s childish aphorisms.

When I graduated there was nobody in the room prouder than my Dad – left school at 13, Burma Star, drove all over the continent for Marconi, grafted his way to a senior position, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. He and Mum couldn’t afford the “parental contribution” to my grant, and I only once made the mistake of asking for it.

And, of course, that was in the days of a grant: even if the modern white English working classes could be persuaded to aspire, to lift their eyes and look around the World of opportunity, they would be discouraged by the prospect of a lifetime mountain of debt.

It is an ugly, ugly situation in a homeland that is becoming nastier by the day.

But look back at that map. It takes no imagination at all to see Scotland opting for independence. If I were Nicola Sturgeon I’d be seriously considered going for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.  OK, probably not – but it is hard to see David Cameron as anything other than the PM whose hubris cost us the Union.

But what of those cities, and especially of London?

How well will England’s great centres of finance and knowledge respond to being asked to pick up the tab for regional policy that is, right now, 100% EU funded? Anything that is seen as moving resources out of the capital – financial or physical – will, history shows us, be seen as anti-London and resisted fiercely. Twitter jokes about a London Independence Party will remain just that, of course, but the underlying feeling will not go away. London, for better or worse, has kept the UK afloat since the days of Thatcher (and there is a very strong case for saying “the worse”, but that is entirely moot).

Add the Government’s (perfectly laudable) taste for city-regions exercising greater autonomy – and note that the main one, Manchester, voted Remain;  season with the thought that Plaid Cymru might see a nice anti-English stick to beat the campaign drums with, and division may not be limited to the exit of Scotland.

It’s called Balkanisation for reasons that history (not just recent) teaches us. It doesn’t need to be at all literal.

It will still be cancerous.

Welcome to the Arc of Affluence

Posted in Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 1 April, 2015

Higher ProfessionalOver the past couple of years, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of contexts, I have been immersed in an inordinate amount of socio-economic data about London. Often it has been work-related but, once the specific job is done, invariably I have found myself prodding and poking the data .

Years ago, I introduced myself to my Masters course as a ‘geographer by education and inclination’. I know. Sad. But once a geographer, always a geographer.

So, there I was with a sea of data and wondering how to make sense of it.

Lower professional and managerialNeedless to say dear old Microsoft Excel let me do a lot of slicing and dicing (pivot tables are a joy), but the problem was that I ended up with an inordinate number of tables and, fun as it was making Data Julienne, once you get down below the largest units you start losing track. It is hard relating Super Output Area E Double-0-whatever to a place. To know the name of every ward in London you need a taxi driver’s Knowledge and, although I lived in various bits of London over 20 years or so, I can’t claim that.

I needed to visualise the information.

The Joy of TechsIntermediate

This is where QGIS, an open source mapping programme with just enough quirks and traps to keep you on your toes comes in. When I was an academic GIS systems were inordinately expensive and required a PhD in Applied Nerdery and the targeting system of an advanced fighter aircraft to keep track of the many things waiting to trip you up, to comprehend . QGIS is both a joy and entirely free. Amazing.

Whats your vector, Victor?

Small bizOnce I had acquainted myself with the joys of vectors, polygons, projections systems, and then rediscovered comma separated values I was good to go. If you are ever interested in what is where (which leads inevitably to why?) then grab and learn QGIS.

The first result of this discovery was the set of maps on the right (you can click on them to see them at a sensible size). I apologise for the surplus zeroes in the key – I hadn’t really got the hang of formatting.

Like I said: quirks.

Cluster stuff

lower supervisoryI want you to pay particular attention to the first map and, to a lesser extent, the second. They show where, for want of less loaded term, the wealthy live. Running roughly between the branches of the Northern Line, through the West End and then turning west and south west through Kensington and Chelsea and out through Battersea, Clapham and on to Richmond, this is the Arc of Affluence, an elongated cluster that houses a wide range of social groups, all the way from the wealthy to the mind-bogglingly wealthy.

semi-routineYou will see a lot of it.

Feel free to browse the other maps. You will find yourself exploring the way in which the socio-economic structure of London reflects directly in its geography, with a marked move to the suburbs for the middle classes – the squeezed out middle, so to speak, followed by the great scatter of those groups who do the grunt work, who may well spend some time in the Arc of Affluence, but only to ensure the residents’ houses are spick-and-span.


Don’t let my snark lead you into think there is any particular value judgement in play here. There isn’t, but I’m keen not to come over as dull and worthy.

The thing is, I don’t think anyone has defined the Arc of Affluence before, and since I’ve been mentioning it to a few people I figured I’d better get it on record to baggsie it before anyone else does. Vain, moi?

Now have some fun poking around the rest of the maps to work out if you are living above or below your station.

As the oldest profession knows, everything has a price

house prices by postal sectorYou might reasonably suppose that this social geography would reflect itself in some obvious ways – house prices for instance. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a map for that, moved to the left to denote that change of topic.

And there it is: the Arc of Affluence, forming its own little postcode lottery. But hang on a moment: there are petite pockets of prosperity elsewhere. What could they be? Let’s add something to the map.

What might provide a handy price boost?

Park life

house parks with parks

It’s not rocket science is it? Many a geographer will tell you that when they ask in a proper, systematic way what things people most value about their living environment access to green space is an ever-present. In the south Dulwich stands out, but even in the east Victoria Park’s north side evidently commands a premium and you can bet your boots that Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will be playing catch up. The hotspot down past Bromley is largely rural. And in the west, it is a reasonable bet that only the looming presence of Heathrow Airport stops Osterley Park and Fields from being surrounded by hot property, rather than just the downwind side.

But there we have Hampstead Heath, Regents and Hyde Parks, Battersea Park and Clapham Common and out to Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. Values in the centre, around the Royal Parks are eye-watering. The highest average in the data set is £11.4m. Guess where.

Deeper and down

Homeworking with more contextAnd then there was the map I was shown – reproduced opposite – from a publication by GLA Intelligence’s Census Information Scheme on home working. I added the parks and the tube system for context and I should state that what follows is entirely my conclusion, not theirs.

Unless you have been off-planet for a while you can scarcely have missed how new kit like iPads and super-light notebooks are going to liberate us all from the tyranny of the office, shop and factory floor as we stay in our communities and work there.

But it is there, isn’t it? The highest concentrations of home workers are slap in the middle of the Arc of Affluence. It is tempting to draw the conclusion that home working is a rich person’s luxury, but the truth is almost certainly more complex and worthy of deeper investigation.

Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

By now you are probably hitting the problem that I hit – of getting bogged down in information. Even with me structuring a mini-thesis for you, it is easy to lose the overview.  So I decided I needed to generalise.

The good news is that I think I pulled it off. The not so good news is that I have the drawing skills of a 12-year-old and not even Pixelmator can fix that. But anyway, here it is. If you know any art students who fancy a project I would be happy for them to take a crack at it.

A Generalised Social Geography of 21st Century London

soc geog

Don’t look for hard edges – it is meant to be impressionistic, with transition areas all over the place and pockets of contrary use. Like I said, drawing skills of a 12-year-old and not a very talented one at that.

But I think it is a pretty robust model – I see these patterns, or something strikingly like them all the time in many data sets, and grasping how the combination of reinforcing and countervailing powers shape them is what geography is all about.


Notes on sources and copyright.

QGIS can be grabbed here; The base maps are Crown Copyright from the Ordnance Survey OpenData initiative. I made the park and tube maps using OpenStreetMap, (c)OpenStreetMap Contributors. If you want the shapefiles, I’m happy to share.

Socio-economic data is from the ONS Census 2011 while house price data comes from the Land Registry. All free.

The Greater London Authority has a truly phenomenal amount of information about life and living in London and if you are at all interested in London it should be your first port of call (full disclosure: I have contributed to some of the research base, though my work with Ramidus Consulting.  All views expressed here are entirely my own). 

The ‘A Generalised Social Geography of 21st Century London’ map is mine, but anyone who reckons they can turn it into something that looks like it was drawn by a grown-up should feel free to do so, in return for a) mentioning my name and b) sending me a postcard or something. Except I am currently between houses, so I can’t tell you where to send it. So do a random good deed for a stranger instead. And link back to here.

If you need maps drawn by a pro, then I highly recommend Jake Sales. Find him on LinkedIn

*Edit: tweak to make a joke 3% funnier, to fix a couple of typos and some clumsy sentences.


England my England: no railroading, thanks, Prime Minister

Posted in Life, Regionalism, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 20 September, 2014

The Journal, of Newcastle, asked a perfectly reasonable question. If much of the pressure for independence in Scotland stemmed from the argument that is is remote from London and therefore neglected, why should anyone suppose that Newcastle, which is a lot closer to Edinburgh than it is to London, be viewed any differently?

Or Liverpool. Or Sheffield. Or Plymouth.

With tedious predictability David Cameron decided to try to railroad a Tory vision of English government and the Westminster machine continues in its centuries long strategy of “Whatever it takes to avoid fundamental change”.

Simply excluding Scots and Welsh and Irish MPs from “English matters” does not address the problem of power concentrated in the Westminster Bubble, which is as big a problem in Newcastle (and Liverpool and Sheffield and Plymouth) as it is in Glasgow.

Never mind that what is an “English” matter is also not straightforward – HS2 would doubtless spawn HS4 (it has already spawned HS3) as the Scots seek to get on the Hight Speed Rail gravy…er… train.

Things tend to spawn.

And it is not just in the remotest outposts that London’s distance is felt. In my neck of the woods, about 23 miles from Charing Cross, there is growing resentment at “Londoners” moving in and driving out locals whose families have been in the area for centuries. There is a different set of issues to Newcastle (or Liverpool etc), but they are issues nonetheless.

In a world of multiple overlapping catchment areas, spheres of influence and trade and exchange flows, a bottom-up approach has merits, but can also lead to strong areas teaming up to exclude weak areas from decision making (see the experience of Local Enterprise Partnerships, if you are interested). It needs proper consideration, not off-the-cuff remarks on the steps of Downing Street just hours after a huge constitutional matter was considered by a huge electorate.

My view is that we need to revisit regionalism, but this time not in the half-arsed, moronic manner that John Prescott delivered on his watch – and which the North East rightly rejected.

Proper regionalism aims to remove power from the centre that does not absolutely have to be there, not to insert an extra tier. Some matters can be resolved by a parish council before the Rose & Crown opens, some can be addressed at the town level and so on up to supra-national. The counties are the useless tier, as the level of unitary conversion shows.

Decentralised governments must have, just like Scotland, revenue raising powers to give them the authority to go along with their responsibility and they must, of course, be democratically accountable. Central government should be the backstop – with enough clout to impose fiscal discipline, but otherwise the lender, court, arbiter and guardian of last resort.

You can probably work out that this points to a written constitution, with a proper statement of the separation of powers, along with wholesale electoral reform.

Call it a Constitutional Convention, call it a Royal Commission, call it Albert – change should only progress after proper consideration by, for and of all interested parties.

There’s only about 60 million of us.

London housing: going where the evidence leads

Posted in Business, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 24 July, 2014

Ramidus Consulting, the real estate and workplace adviser that I am proud to be associated with, spent a big chunk of late 2013 and early 2014 taking a very close – I would argue forensic – look at the challenges presented by the presence of very wealthy investors in the City of Westminster, in particular to “quantify and describe the scale and nature of the Prime residential market in Westminster and to consider its impact on the economy and communities.”

The client was the City itself and the result was published today.

The report has been well received, with one real estate professional calling it ‘fascinating‘  while another very experienced property PR man said “At last, some objective & concrete analysis of London’s PCL market“. It would be fair to say that all at Ramidus are delighted with the response to the report so far. It was a difficult and challenging project and, of course, highly politically sensitive.

So we are especially proud that we were able to stick with the approach that Ramidus always uses: we go where the evidence leads.  Many of our initial assumptions were turned on their heads, we found many avenues that we would have liked to explore in more depth, but which were outside the scope of the research and we came to appreciate the astonishing complexity of housing not just in the City of Westminster but in London as a whole.

The “in a nutshell” conclusions are summarised in the final chapter, in terms of two critical questions:

  • Does the increasing price and volume of higher value housing impact on Westminster’s ability to meet housing needs in the borough?

It is hard to deny this.

  •  Is there a planning policy that could mitigate or change that, without creating alternative problems?

We cannot envisage one within existing frameworks.

This is Westminster’s (and, it must be said, London’s) ‘intractable problem’.

I urge anyone interested in housing in London to grab the report – download it here – and to take your time reading it.

We have, of course, continued thinking about the issues in the report and many others we found in the course of research. It would be inappropriate to discuss them here, lest people get the idea we ‘speak for Westminster’, but I will return to them in future blogs.

Pubs grubbing around for survival

Posted in Business, Musing, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 30 May, 2014
The Black Lion

I assume this was a planning condition!

Neither The Pineapple nor The Blue Anchor were especially on my radar in my regular going-out-with-mates drinking days.

It was, for us, a circulation around the The Goat, The Lower Red Lion, The Rose & Crown and sometimes The Fighting Cocks. There would be occasional detours to The Horn of Plenty for some live music, The Midland Arms for the best jukebox in town, or The Farriers Arms for the full-on real ale experience. Any other random pub might be the beneficiary or our whimsy or desire for change, but the core circuit was there. On any given Saturday, The Goat would be absolutely rammed with pretty well everybody I knew.

These were the parameters for the Pub Stroll, which is like a pub crawl except that if we ended up staying in the same pub all night, that was fine. It was a treasured youth of meeting at the Clock Tower and going from there.

People don’t really drink like that any more.

This week Bar 62 (which was The Pineapple in my youth) and The Blue Anchor announced that they are closing their doors. The future for both locations must be in serious doubt and it will be no shock at all if both are redeveloped for housing.  Although they were not on my crowd’s circuit, a look at Facebook shows that many others spent, or mis-spent, youths in them so it would be nice to be proven wrong.

Bar 62 had worked hard to carve out a niche not just for food, but for being inventive about events like open mic nights.  The abruptness of it closing-down not long after a refurbishment suggests there might still be a story to tell, but The Blue Anchor is easier to grasp.

Blue Anchor closes

Blue Anchor closes

Despite having a generous car park, its location could have been designed to have its footfall intercepted by two excellent nearby pubs, The Six Bells and The Rose & Crown. It tried to move upmarket, but that put it into the most fickle and competitive sector of the leisure trade. The building – although nice enough – was nothing special, particularly when compared to The Six Bells’ 17th Century charm.

But whatever the specifics, the trends that make the market hard for both are clear. Then it was me, Tim, Jez, Loz, Nick, Grant, Rob and a gallery of others heading for the City centre for about 8pm and heading off for beer and chat, eventually to catch up with Sarah behind the bar at The Goat, before grabbing a kebab or hotdog on the way home.

Today it is about the “pre-drinks” (meaning spirits) and barely being on the way to a venue before 10:30pm with a view to being in a club not long after. The clubs aren’t especially new around here, but their relative importance seems to be. And the whole pre-drinks idea must be about the price of booze.

And that leaves the “old-fashioned boozer” out on a limb.

You can get a seat and food in the Goat on a Saturday now, assuming you can find a parking space in the crowded streets. The pubs have bouncers on Fridays and Saturdays – not just for security, I suspect, but because fire safety limits are taken a tad more seriously – whereas, even on New Years Eve, we would simply cram ourselves in. It lasted maybe 5 years – from roughly 1978 to roughly 1983 – before the winds of time and fortune sent us on our separate ways.

Memory Lane is a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to be buying a cottage there.

The price of booze, proper enforcement of fire safety and – for that matter – drink-driving laws, maybe the smoking ban and the rise of club culture have done to the pub what out-of-town retail has done for the high street.  It doesn’t mean that the town centre is dead on a Saturday night, but it is very different and (in my view) a rather meaner place.  I hope I am just being a bit Mr Grumpy, but it seems to be that getting shit-faced is an end in itself now, rather than a by-product of being social creatures.

It is always hard letting the past go, but if I am going to argue for accepting change in the daytime economy I cannot logically reject it in the nighttime economy. Memory Lane is a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to be buying a cottage there.

So what can be done? I suspect I will come back to this.

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Alright, I lied – yet more on coffee shops

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 9 May, 2014
Not exactly a misspent youth, is it?

Not exactly a misspent youth, is it?

So I ended up writing to the Herts Ad again, since St Albans Civic Society replied, and, well frankly showed contempt for a large chunk of the users of the City centre. At least this time there was common ground, albeit unrelated, on the issue of protecting employment land.

Anyway, per the letter below, I estimated that the City centre would find itself £4m a year short of that needed to sustain itself with the Maltings (at 1982 prices – about £10m a year in today’s prices)  – and that therefore the department store would not be viable.

I mistakenly thought that Sainsbury’s was playing hardball for the new centre, having not fully appreciated the extent to which it was abandoning town centres. I expected contraction at the edges of the City centre and for neighbourhood centres to suffer – this happened, but so many changes have happened to UK retail that I would not seek to attribute that to the Maltings. St Albans city centre, and many of its smaller centres, is struggling because all of the important stuff is better provided elsewhere – and it is far, far too late to fix that.

Anyway, this really is the last time – probably.


Two things: it is a funny old world when praise for past success and criticism of sadly misguided current thinking is a “diatribe” (Tim Boatswain, last week). Hey ho. It would be funny, if it were not so sad, that the secretary of the Civic Society so contemptuously dismissed the mums, the workers and the students of St Albans as insufficiently motived. Sorry if they are too busy raising families, earning a living or writing essays and don’t meet your exacting standards of engagement. The clue is in the word “busy”.

Secondly, it is 32 years since, in my undergraduate dissertation, I modelled the then under construction Maltings and predicted that it would never find a taker for the proposed department store. Hardly surprising since we had lost three in the previous 15 years, I suppose, but the competition was just too intense even in prosperous Hertfordshire.

And that was before Sainsbury’s on Griffiths Way, Savacentre (as was) at London Colney, and before the Ballito site became Prestos (now Morrisons), before stonking great Tesco stores in Hatfield and Watford, and when Waitrose on King Harry Lane was a fresh-faced harbinger of things to come.

Getting snotty about cafes that – manifestly – a lot of people actually use and for which there is – equally manifestly – a viable market, and arguing against one that not a single person has proposed, is to fight the wrong battle, at the wrong end of the City centre and well over 25 years too late. Even the burger bars have left town. Clinging by bloodied fingernails to a fantasy town centre that died years ago and is never coming back helps nobody.

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, as anyone who has studied the small towns around the M25 can tell you.

Oh, and just to show there are no hard feelings, I actually have some sympathy with the Society’s views of office-to-residential. Once employment land is lost, it never comes back. It is a genuine and difficult challenge. Snobbery over coffee shops is not.

Incidentally, I made a small error of memory – Presto had already been bought by Safeway by the time it took over the Fleetville supermarket which, previously, had been a Co-op.


Showbiz, do-gooders and perking up High Street UK

Posted in Business, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 23 April, 2014

Taken on the day the Olympic Torch came throughSmall town centres are under the cosh. Outflanked by out-of-town retail, inflexible and expensive, they are in deep, deep trouble.

What does it take to bring life to a struggling town centre? I’ve argued in the past that an “executive” rather that “committee” approach is best, because committees are where things go to die.

I also think that goals need to be clearly defined and measurable and set out in a contract, in order for accountability to work.

If we are to entrust accountability to such a contract – legal or social – we would do well to think carefully about what it is we are contracting for. If we don’t we end up with box ticking, and that would rather defeat the object.

Box ticking builds in fear of failure.

Given that goals need to be realistic and measurable, the temptation is to reduce this to “rent-roll” or some proxy of that. Has the unit on the High Street been let? Are the streets swept? Did the rent review get sorted? Even where town centre managers have direct control over such matters, they are hardly the cutting edge. I am wary of characterising all town centre managers as train-spottery geeks, obsessed with vacancy rates. So please grasp that I am stretching my point for the sake of contrast.

So what, exactly, am I asking of anyone charged with care of our small town centres?

Think, if you will, about that term: ‘town centre manager’. It doesn’t exactly smack of “sexy” does it? It immediately brings to my mind a similar term: “operations manager”. Now, let’s be clear, a good ops manager is a joy to have. But it doesn’t really make you think of, say, setting out a vision, does it?

But I am also very wary of town-clerk-to-chief-executive style name changes, where the role remains unchanged but with a fancy new label.

I am talking about a wholly new role.

Enter the Suburban Impresario. (more…)

Wrong battle, 25 years too late (Coffee shops ad caffeinium).

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 10 April, 2014
French Row, St Albans

The Millets building on French Row, looking exactly like a building on a medieval street shouldn’t.

So I ended up writing to the Herts Ad again.  (Herts Ad link, as a courtesy). This will be the last (at least on this topic) I promise.

Going to a spectacular length to condemn something that nobody is proposing, while ignoring the important bit of the story – a chance to rectify a terrible bit of out-of-character architecture, really does take the biscuit.

Whether it will happen like that, who knows? But you might think this opportunity is what should be at the core of the Civic Society’s thinking.


Oh Dear Lord, not content showing contempt for young mums, busy professionals, students, the self-employed and all of their needs and desires, St Albans Civic Society has now taken to tilting at windmills.

It is one thing rabble rousing about Caffe Nero, but quite a spectacular display of hubris to object to a coffee shop that nobody – absolutely nobody – has proposed. Presumably the Society is delighted that the old Harringtons unit is now a travel agent.

The Society is completely out of touch with the often brutal realities of the modern high street, and wholly indifferent to the needs of a large chunk of the population.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is time for St Albans Civic Society to lay up its colours. 

And what a shame that the Herts Ad let a potentially interesting story about an attempt to revamp an important corner of the City centre to be derailed by a group rapidly degenerating into a collection of one-track obsessives travelling the road to irrelevance. Milletts has been there as long as I can remember, and its hideous and out-of-character building is long overdue for redevelopment. So how about focussing on the real story?

If you want to talk to me, or my business partners in our about regeneration, pop over to the Ramidus Consulting website (the view expressed here and in the Herts Advertiser are, obviously, mine and not necessarily those of Ramidus). Our opinion goes where the evidence, not assumption, leads us and I am proud to be associated with Ramidus.

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.


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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