The shape, size and character of Bishop's Stortford are determined to a large extent by our County Council (Herts CC) and District Council (EHDC). Herts CC are responsible for education and care services, the Police (as Police Authority) and transport and highways. They are also responsible for libraries and the Fire Service. Until a few years ago they were also responsible for strategic planning, including how much of the new housing to be provided in the County should be allocated to EHDC. Strategic planning is now the responsibility of central Government and the Eastern Regional Assembly. EHDC are responsible for a range of local services including refuse collection, recycling, swimming pools, parks and leisure. Their services which most concern us are:
This division of responsibilities is common to all county and district councils. Across the county border, these responsibilities are handled by Essex County Council and Uttlesford District Council.
Council Tax pays for only about a quarter of the Councils' expenditure. The rest is paid for by business rates (which the Government fixes and distributes) and by Government Grants. Much of central Government support is distributed on a population basis and so if Bishop's Stortford were to move to a new local authority, grants would move with it. Council Tax is collected by District Councils on behalf of the County and Police authorities as well as for their own expenditure. For 2009/10, the average paid by an EHDC Band D householder will be £1477, an increase over the previous year of 3.5%. For Uttlesford Band D householders, the average Council Tax will be £1459, an increase of 2.6%.
Over the last 40 years, Bishop's Stortford has been allocated 40% of all the new housing in EHDC's area. We now have around 30% of the population of the whole district. When once we were similar in size and character to the County town – Hertford – we now have a population nearly 50% greater. The growth is far greater than the demands of the local population would have required. The amount of new housing to be provided in EHDC's area was the decision of Herts CC and the amount of new housing to be provided in Bishop's Stortford was the decision of EHDC.
Growth on this scale has to be supported by physical and social infrastructure. However, our experience has been at best the preservation of the status quo and at worst, loss of public services and detrimental development. Decisions on many public services may have been the responsibility of other agencies, but our County and District Councils appear to have done little to highlight the increased demands being placed on those services as a result of their local housing allocation policies. Here are some examples:
Law and Order
Extra housing and other new developments generate extra traffic. The core of Bishop's Stortford cannot support extra traffic because the capacity of the roads is largely fixed. The main element of the Bishop's Stortford transportation strategy was to squeeze a bit more capacity out of the system by integrating all the traffic lights in a way which would adjust the aspects to ease the flows where congestion was most serious. This strategy shows no signs of being implemented, but meanwhile, in Herts Highways' eyes, no development is unacceptable – they raised no objections to the schools' relocation or the housing to be built on the vacated sites or, more recently, to the proposed hotel in South Street. Their promise to redesign the Haymeads Lane/ Dunmow Road junction led to the doubling of the number of houses on the Hospital site compared with the development brief. Three years later they still do not know how to fix it, and even raised no objection to additional housing development in Haymeads Lane. The new car park in Jackson Square replaced two car parks which did work with one which does not thanks to Herts Highways insisting on the wrong locations for the entry and exit points.
One way of dealing with the problem would be to manage demand by locating park and ride sites on the edge of town. The only one previously in operation was withdrawn once EHDC terminated funding so as to force traffic to use the Jackson square car park.
An increased population leads inevitably to an increased demand for school places. Despite the extra revenue the County has enjoyed as a result of population growth in Bishop's Stortford they have allowed provision of secondary school places to lag behind demand. Their most recent solution was to egg on the two foundation secondary schools to relocate to a single campus on the Green Belt and for our local community to pay for an unnecessary move with nearly 800 unwanted extra houses on the vacated sites, ignoring the site already in their ownership on which a new school could be built. Happily, the strength of the campaign led by the Civic Federation led to all the applications being withdrawn, but six months later, no alternative way of meeting the need has been suggested.
Like Herts Highways, EHDC find it difficult to say no to development whatever its quality. As a result each major town centre development is more of an eyesore than the one which preceded it – the Leisure Centre, Anchor Street, Jackson Square and Tanners Wharf are all completely inappropriate in scale and materials to the character of the town. No such development of this kind been permitted in Hertford, but for Bishop's Stortford it appears that anything will do.
If the past seems bad enough, the future promises to be a lot worse. Here are some of the things we hear the County and District would like to do.
Housing – building another 3000 houses on the ASRs leading to a population of 50000 compared with around 36000 at present.
Education – it is rumoured that the foundation schools are being encouraged to resubmit the same applications, in the hope that, if it went to an appeal, the Government would ignore the wishes of the local population and allow the move to go ahead so as to give us another 800 houses in addition to the giant campus and loss of Green Belt.
The Town Centre – after three weeks in the open and no public debate, EHDC decided to move most of its staff from Bishop's Stortford, surrender ownership of the Waitrose Car Park which generates over £80000 a year in income and encourage the building of a new shopping centre and multi storey car park on the site. The land is not zoned for this use in the local plan, we do not need another Jackson Square and selling the freehold at a time when commercial property prices have collapsed is not a smart move – but this is EHDC who believe in deciding what is best for us behind closed doors. We still of course have planning applications for the goods yard site and perhaps the flour mill site to look forward too. On past form, EHDC will agree to any proposal.
The Vision Committee – EHDC have set up a ‘Vision Committee' but it is not being allowed to develop a vision. It has not been consulted on or made any input to the three issues listed above which would be central to any vision for the future of the town. Sadly the committee seems to be little more than an exercise in lip service to the virtues of public consultation.
The future of our town as a lively and attractive community in which to live remains at risk while we remain under the control of Herts CC and EHDC. Would joining Essex and Uttlesford make any difference? There are reasons for thinking it might.