We’re all familiar with the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where a vain leader is hoodwinked by a pair of unscrupulous tailors. Have we, perhaps, been witnessing a re-enactment of Hans Christian Anderson’s story at Brockington this month, with Cllr John Jarvis in the lead role and Cllr Mark Hubbard as the incredulous child who shrieks: “But he’s got nothing on!”
Back story: Hereford’s ambitions to be a shopping destination date back over a decade, but it was not until 2007 that a number of ambitious tailors – err sorry, town centre developers – discovered this sleepy cathedral city and the grandiose £80m Edgar Street Grid dream was created. Elsewhere in England, the good burghers of Burnley, Chester and Lancaster were having similarly-ambitious retailing aspirations.
Global uncertainties, Chancellor Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy and countless pessimistic retailing forecasts couldn’t deflect Hereford’s resolve. Corporate finance specialist Deloitte, as recently as March, predicted that as many as four out of 10 high street shops will have to close by 2017, as customers switch to online shopping. Wholly unphased, Herefordshire Council’s cabinet committee this month eagerly rubber-stamped a new agreement with British Land and Stanhope plc, then strong-armed it through the Tory-dominated Overview and Scrutiny committee nine days later, after a tetchy four-hour session.
Fears of the impact on established, locally-owned High Town businesses, the speed with which the six-variation developers’ package had been cobbled together, and Cllr Roger Phillips’ Alice in Wonderland shopping statistics, remained unanswered questions. A specially-convened cabinet meeting is now the only (minor) hurdle for ‘The Emperor’ to negotiate.
Elsewhere in England, sanity reigns. Burnley has just announced that it has shelved its £40m city centre expansion, Chester has parted company with its developer ING, ending a 12-year partnership, and Lancaster – with a population three quarters that of Hereford – has also come to its senses and told developer Centros (who, coincidentally, were one of the finalists in the Hereford ‘beauty contest’ of 2007) to scale back its retail scheme to 20% of its original size.
And what does the naked council leader John Jarvis hear from his cabinet colleagues and the handpicked board members of Hereford Futures, as he preens himself in front of a mirror? “Suits you, Sir!”