For many people who live in this city, BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester is their ‘parish pump’. They rely on its day-to-day, hour-by-hour local information about the weather, the state of the roads in winter, dates and times of fetes and the machinations of our local politicians.
In conversation recently with an elderly St James’ resident, I was told that she preferred H&W every time to the local rags. “The strange thing is that whenever a councillor or a council official from Worcestershire comes on the wireless, they talk common sense and are believable; whenever it’s someone from Herefordshire, they’re either tongue-tied or they waffle!” Herefordshire councillor Graham Powell’s fumbling interview the very next day, about how his authority was “investing £1.2-million in pot holes” seemed to confirm the lady’s point.
By modern marital standards, the ‘marriage’ between the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire lasted a long time – 24 years; by the lifespans of these two neighbours it was just a blink of the eye. The merger was recommended by the 1972 Redcliffe-Maude Report and implemented two years later. The Tory’s Local Government Bill was steered through parliament by prime minister Heath’s bagman, the ultra-smooth Peter (later to be enobled as Baron) Walker. His day job was with the city-based asset strippers Slater Walker and both he and his partner Jim Slater had reputations as ‘Teflon’ men.
The people of Worcestershire (who outnumbered their neighbours three-to-one), saw it as a merger; Herefordians saw it as a takeover. But the residents of both counties agreed that to christen a super-county of 1500 square miles with the name of two cathedral cities was plain daft.
Worcestershire’s industry base was broader and more go-ahead (compare Redditch and Rotherwas, for example), while the people of Herefordshire seemed content to raise cattle and make their own cider. And though it provided a topic for plenty of pub bragging, being the home of the legalised hooligans called the SAS didn’t bring in much inward investment.
Worcester has had an impressive shopping centre (‘Crowngate’) for more than two decades, while Hereford has yet to lay the foundations of its costly (and much derided) Edgar Street Grid. Hereford’s 133-year old city library is creaking at the seams; Worcester’s spanking new £60-million library (‘The Hive’) attracted 100,000 visitors in its first six weeks. Worcester is planning to build a second sports stadium, while the stands of Hereford United’s ground look as if they came from the Ark. Worcester’s multiplex has been around for more than a decade; Hereford’s six-screen Odeon won’t open until next year. But with four active nightclubs, Hereford’s vomit-per-square metre of paving surpasses Worcester’s most weekends.
The city of Worcester is ringed by eight miles of bypass. Hereford is still waiting for work to begin on the long-promised cross-city expressway, which will be all of 800yds long and cost £27-million. Bromsgrove – a popular Worcestershire destination for Brummy retirees – is about to get a £14-million transport interchange, while access to the platforms on sleepy old Hereford’s Grade II-listed railway station are still by Victorian footbridge.
The two administrations seem to have fundamentally different ways of working, with Worcestershire recently announcing that it intends to shed 1,500 council workers and make annual savings of £20 million, while its neighbour says it needs to reduce its annual expenditure by £10 million – but rather than come up with a financial strategy, it published an online questionnaire. Although of the same political persuasion, the two council leaders are different animals: Worcestershire’s appropriately-named Adrian Hardman being financially cautious, while Herefordshire’s John Jarvis might be said to adhere to the Viv Nicholson school of economics. Herefordshire currently buys in consultancy services like there’s no tomorrow. A Freedom of Information request recently revealed that last year alone it shelled out an eye-watering £257,000 in fees to lawyers and chartered surveyors. Cynics suggest that much of this was by way of an ‘insurance policy’ against the rumoured judicial review of its Alice-in-Wonderland financing of the Edgar Street Grid.
Probably the biggest bone of contention at the time of the merger was the chosen power-base: Worcester’s unlovely concrete bunker which overlooks the M5. There were even dark rumours about the transfer of priceless assets which never got returned and today the remaining jewels in Hereford’s cultural crown (it owns three rarely exhibited Turners) are under lock and key in its museum resource in Friar Street. Its nationally-important historic costumes collection is said to be badly in need of conservation. By contrast, Worcester’s well-preserved Queen Anne Guild Hall is awash with oil paintings and chandeliers – one of which bears a remarkable resemblance to one which once the graced the ballroom of Holme Lacy House near Hereford.
Everybody knew that the couple were barely on speaking terms, living at opposite ends of the house, and it all came to a rather acrimonious end in 1998, with a legal separation of the two parties and the restoration of their ‘maiden’ names’ and armorial badges. But given these straightened times and the visible economic disparity between the two neighbours, was the divorce such a good idea?