Vague ramblings

All my bags are packed…

Posted in Life, Personal, St Albans by Ian Cundell on 1 March, 2015

…and when I say ‘all’ I mean all, from my venerable Karrimor Jaguar rucksack to my dad’s suitcase from when he was a commercial driver and on to a tartan thing that really shouldn’t be seen in public and which, save for some unexpected extra stuff, would have been quietly shuffled off to a charity shop.

I have sold my house and, thanks to a vendor being a right dickhead at the worst possible time of year, am temporarily of no fixed abode while I wait for a house I want to become available. And that means that a person who prefers to travel light, can’t. But still, an important and overdue life change is at last under way, even if I still don’t know where it will end up.

Here is some stuff I’ve discovered:

*Having a good buyer is like gold dust. Craig didn’t dick around for one moment, although he was mightily dicked around himself and I’m fairly sure he has had to promise the soul of his first-born to Nationwide;

* The new recycling arrangements in St Albans are an abomination and whoever came up with them should be fired and never allowed to work in public service again. They are a positive inducement to fly-tip;

* That you have much, much more stuff than you think you do;

* That the thing – you know that thing – that might come in handy one day, won’t – so take it to the sodding dump or a charity shop;

* That putting your cats, who have hung out with you for more than a decade, into a cattery is really distressing, but that the people at Cayton’s get that;

* That family, friends and neighbours – Alan, Sian, Daz and Will, Miah and Silvia, Jes, really step up;

* That, when having a last look round before the house ceases to be legally mine and spotting an envelope, picking it up and realising it is the words I wrote for Dad’s funeral causes all the “I’m really not that sentimental about this” nonsense to unspool in an instant.

Just over 60 years ago, Doreen and Ken moved into a council house of the kind they don’t let working class people have any more. Two days ago, that era ended and Craig has big dreams to make a wonderful home for him and his partner. I am quite certain that Mum and Dad would have liked them.

Time to go.

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.

The Zone of Death revisited

Posted in Business, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 27 March, 2014

Another revisit of one of my UK Regeneration posts. Original here. It is very much a companion item to Semi-Arid Suburbia and Nightlife and Nimbys.

The Zone of Death

I have a hypothesis – which I’m certainly not going to grace with the term theory – that has been knocking about my brain for a few weeks. If I were feeling melodramatic I’d call it the “Zone of Death” hypothesis.

In fact, I think I will.

The Zone of Death hypothesis rests on a straightforward posit: some towns are too big to be small, but too small to be big. It comes from a simple empirical observation: where I live the two biggest towns are St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, and two smaller towns are Harpenden and Berkhamsted.

St Albans and Hemel are reasonably successful business centres, with rather different formats: Maylands is a Hemel new town sprawl, that – for non-office uses at least – seems to work well, while smaller and rather cluttered industrial areas in St Albans show that congestion can be a sign of healthy demand.

But then we get to the town centres. Hemel is struggling, not really fit to compete with edge- and out-of-town stores, especially at Apsley. St Albans has some “banker” stores – Marks & Spencer, BhS and Tesco (albeit Metro), and before the credit crunch vacancy was zero. But even post-crunch rents are forcing out independent stores, while other parts of the city centre show signs of marginality. This has been aggravated by the epically stupid decision to ban parking from the St Peters Street service road, sending footfall tumbling – resulting in Pound stores and empty units. A school report for either town would say “Should do better.”

But in Harpenden and Berkhamsted we find two attractive and vibrant high streets, with small independent stores complementing pint-size Waitrose and other supermarkets. Harpenden has a population of around 30,000 while Berkhamsted is just over half that.

I found myself pondering what the common factors might be, and here are my starters for ten:


Both smaller towns have decidedly user friendly parking arrangements. In Berkhamsted the car parks by Tesco and Waitrose are inexpensive, while Harpenden permits free on-street parking in many areas for an hour.


Let’s be candid, both towns have a relatively high proportion of middle class professionals in their catchment areas, but perhaps more importantly, neither town tries to “punch above its weight”. They are nice and niche places to go. Not for a long stay, it has to be said, but pleasant all the same


Both of them show no fear at all of pavement culture, which gives a feel of both bustling activity and, perhaps paradoxically, a rather chilled out feel.

No visible fear of congestion

Neither town shows any real fear of congestion. That doesn’t mean that it is especially welcome, but there is a sense in both areas of minimal micro-management, of congestion as a cost of doing business.

It is not all good for towns in this size bracket – there is a reason Borehamwood is known locally as Bore-Em-Stiff, showing as it does many of the failings of post-War planning but few of the virtues. And yet, I feel there is something in the idea.

This analysis is, of course, more problematic for neighbourhoods within the contiguous built-up areas of metropolitan cities. But I would be willing to bet that a prima facie case for a similar pattern could be built after a couple of circuits of the North and South Circulars. My old stamping ground in Balham would be a good suburban candidate (despite Peter Sellars) for being too small for proper shops, but too large for charming shops.

These are the most starkly semi-arid areas we have, and I think it worth considering what their smaller neighbours can teach.

Little has changed since 2011, although it is worth noting that Harpenden has its fair share of charity stores – not usually a sign of health. But the fact is, when I need a get-out-of-the-house coffee break, I am as likely to drive to Harpenden as into St Albans, and when I have business meetings with colleagues from elsewhere on the M25 Berko is the place to go. Also, Balham is a bit more gentrified than I realised back then. Finally, I am perhaps a little less optimistic about the viability of some of the industrial sites in St Albans.

Semi-arid suburbia revisited

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 4 March, 2014

Back in 2010 I wrote the following for UK Regeneration (original here):

Take a look around your local town centre – whether in a suburban area or smaller town doesn’t matter, the essence will remain the same. What do you see? The chances are that it will include some or all of the following:

  • Vacant or under-utilised offices, or at the very least offices that have not seen a decent refurbishment in a decade or more;
  • A Tesco of some kind, but most likely with either “Metro” or “Express” appended;
  • A pound store which will probably have replaced a Sainsbury’s or a Woolworth;
  • A shopping precinct that has never quite worked;
  • Pervasive parking controls that make “quick trip” shopping barely tenable;
  • Congestion OR pedestrianisation, or congestion displaced by pedestrianisation;
  • Outside London, busses of many colours, with routes that are scarcely comprehensible;
  • Noticeably fewer local enterprises occupying shops than in past years;
  • A Waterstones.
  • Some high-value town centre “apartment” schemes;
  • A least one decent-sized site that will have been subject to development proposals for as long as you can remember, but on which nothing has happened.

In your local paper there will be at least a couple of stories showing that local authorities have absolutely no grasp of the pressures faced by smaller businesses.

It won’t all be bad.

  • There is a reasonable chance that a local civic group or entrepreneur is leading efforts to revive a much-loved building (most likely a cinema, perhaps a theatre).
  • You may be lucky enough to have a town centre manager who takes his or her job way beyond mere management.

But these will all-to-often feel like efforts to push water up hill. Even in relatively successful town centres, the overall feeling is of a place that is less important than it was 20 years ago – less alive. And certainly less loved.

I call it Semi-Arid Suburbia. I always knew my geography degree would prompt a handy metaphor one day.

It isn’t an arid place, a desert – there is still life in suburban town centres. But it is less diverse, less exciting and less intense than it once was. It is semi-arid.

Partly this is related to the rise of out-of-town and edge-of-town retail and this is reasonably well understood.

But partly – and this is much less well understood – it is to do with those under-used offices, the silent neglect in our suburban landscape. There has been negligible rental growth, outside of central London and one or two other hot spots, for the fat end of two decades, not even enough to prompt decent refurbishment.

It is the legacy of the B1 use-class, that office-to-light industrial catch-all, a sign of a dreadful lack of imagination, and it is a cancer on our town centres.

And something needs to be done.

I revisit this because some Important People have finally caught up, in the shape of the Future Spaces Foundation (see here). There is a hint of apple pie thinking  – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but it is bang on about the obsession with protecting retail. The brutal truth is that most medium-sized towns have no future as significant retail centres: I concur with the thrust of FSF’s thesis. But think about those under-utilised offices have a role to play too, not just dead shops and Eric Pickles’s “one size fits all” solution of allowing unfettered conversion to residential is not the way to go. I’ll show why in a future blog.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were communities of work and leisure in our smaller town centres?


Bird brains and brainy birds….

Posted in St Albans, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 1 June, 2013

And because everything has been a bit serious lately, jackdaws busted as scoffers-in-chief:

Birdies from Ian Cundell on Vimeo.

Making it hard to be good

Posted in Irritants, Life, St Albans by Ian Cundell on 22 March, 2013

Some time ago – I’m not sure when, but in the past few years – Hertfordshire Constabulary carried out a reorganisation to make the delivery of services more efficient, presumably saving council tax payers a fair few quid. I am quite certain the analysis to support the changes was thorough. Indeed, they left only one teensy-weeny problem.

It is rubbish. Useless. And, crucially, counter-productive.

Let me explain. (more…)

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