The new wasteland

The new wasteland


Written by: Jenny Bourne

It is poverty not migration that is changing the nature of Britain’s towns and cities.

If you want to feel and smell austerity, go to Hatfield – in leafy Hertfordshire, with the rolling hills that EM Forster loved. It provides a microcosm of the changing social geography of Britain today.[1] Hatfield was, until the 1990s, a fairly prosperous town with British Aerospace providing over 7,000 jobs. Now it is a pain of nothingness, boasting the Galleria, an outlet mall on a dual carriageway, the University of Hertfordshire and a clutch of redevelopment plans.[2] And poverty-stricken Hatfield has also become multi-ethnic – and all of a sudden.

There are, in fact, three Hatfields: to the east, the small ‘Old Hatfield’ of Olde English charm with its genteel quaint old houses, the pub where Dickens got the idea for Oliver Twist and a beautiful church clustered around the Marquis of Salisbury’s Hatfield House. Then there is, to the west, Hatfield Business Park on the former British Aerospace land, owned and developed by the private company Goodman which claims it has created 10,000 jobs and built 2,000 homes, Europe’s largest Health and Racquets club, a police station and a University campus. And then there is Hatfield proper in the centre, built up from the 1930s when de Havilland opened its aircraft factory which developed into a New Town as British Aerospace flourished – and then died. It is a maze of anonymous streets, many roundabouts and few dispersed facilities. For everything hinges on the purpose built central shopping centre which is now a desolate pedestrianised howl.

Many high streets are succumbing to the charity shop and the nail bar. But Hatfield can hardly boast even that. Look around its central square. The shop fronts which are not boarded up are few and far between. One belongs to Smarty – selling very cheap school uniforms, another to Beaujanglez -‘giving back to the community’ but in fact selling second-hand goods. Others are asking for your used silver and gold, another sells end of line furniture – ‘stock lines change every week’. The post office is now set back and behind heavy security, so almost impossible to locate. Boots, too, one of the only chain-stores to grace Hatfield, is behind heavy shutters, more fortress than welcoming family chemist.

The outdoor market was always down-market but at least it was vibrant. Now it houses stalls of house clearance items, or a mishmash of out of date cheap food, batteries and garish fleece blankets. And in the soulless windswept area remains just one traditional greengrocer with the loud London melodic bawl, ‘get your taters here, carrots, collies, come on ladies, one pand a pand.’ And who are the ladies? They are African, Asian, Middle-Eastern and, if white, well past middle-age.

In the course of three years the complexion of Hatfield has completely changed. In part this is due to the University of Hertfordshire expanding and becoming the biggest employer in the town and attracting a large proportion of its students from overseas.[3] In part it is the fact that Hatfield’s depressed housing market has attracted new migrants desperate for a home and appealed to local authorities finding places for asylum seekers.[4] Whatever the cause, the irony is that it is now the newcomers who are shoring up Hatfield’s town centre.

There is a newly-opened eastern European food shop selling to Lithuanians, Romanians and Bulgarians where the pound shop used to be. There are two Polish supermarkets. There is now a shop catering for South Indian and African tastes next to a boarded up Smarty in the empty square, opposite the new African unisex hair salon. There are three new shops with hand-written signs drawing your eye to the fact they have halal meat. And there are two well-lit newly-fitted-out ‘oriental’ supermarkets selling fresh food and dry goods from China, Korea, Burma, Malaysia and Thailand. The signs of regeneration are coming from Hatfield’s new BME communities.

But poverty brings with it its own hierarchies of antagonism. There are reported incidents of students being attacked at night. A blog on ‘The worst things in Hatfield’,[5] which encourages people to moan, reveals a depressing litany of dislikes. The students hate the locals for their attitudes, the locals hate the students for being messy and letting houses run down, the students blame their rapacious landlords, some locals blame the asylum seekers, others complain about the Gypsies gathering in the swimming pool car park, drug dealers and schoolgirl prostitutes are said to have made the central square unsafe. But in the offline world, there seems to be a kind of acceptance, that we are all in this quagmire together. This is still a strongly Labour area, no rightwing party has as yet made political capital out of Hatfield.[6]

There is much talk and much written about ‘white flight’ these days, of communities being ‘taken over’ and natives feeling aliens in their own land.[7] The implication is that whites leave an area because foreigners are moving in. But that flies in the face of the reality: it is economic blight that causes white flight. And it is when whites have flown that ‘foreigners’ move in to the interstices of a decaying local economy where services are declining and the future is bleak.

And economic blight – or uneven development – is the other side of the coin of globalisation. Take a closer look at Hatfield. The death blow to its centre was dealt when Walmart moved in during the 1990s – with its bright, modern 24-hour Asda superstore and huge car park. (And it is Asda and two Tesco stores within a few miles of Hatfield that provide the newly arrived students and refugees with jobs at £5.83 per hour rising to £6.03 after 26 weeks – just above the minimum wage.) According to national Tory chairman and local MP Grant Shapps, Hatfield ‘is at the heart of a jobs revolution… twenty years ago it all looked very bleak. Today we’re a showcase for business success.’[8] But the much-vaunted 11,156 jobs in the new global industries’ business park are not by and large, and apart from Ocado’s distribution centre, going to locals at all. It is unlikely they would have the skills needed for twenty-first century high-tech businesses. These companies such as Pitney Bowes, PLC Logistics, Computacentre and Henkel usually bring their staff with them anyway. And the new housing built on the site is not going to local people either but to middle-class professionals who either work in the new jobs sector or commute from west Hatfield to jobs in St Albans or Watford; they are out of the reach of locals.

As one part of Hatfield thrives, another part appears to be being systematically disembowelled – and not just by private enterprise. The central Hertfordshire library hub and reference centre has just been relocated from south Hatfield to Welwyn Garden City. The local Tory-controlled Welwyn-Hatfield Council stands accused of funnelling funds to provide services in nearby leafy Welwyn Garden City at the expense of Hatfield. A letter to the St Albans and Harpenden Review makes the point: ‘ I find it incredible that the Council can justify … pampering WGC when Hatfield is virtually a “special needs case” … the Hatfield area is rated as the largest for children living in poverty throughout Hertfordshire!’[9]. A recent study revealed that a segment of Hatfield Central was in the top 20 per cent of nationally deprived wards. According to the Lib-Dem candidate for Hatfield South, the deprivation is much worse than figures suggest because the presence of the students actually ‘dilutes’ the statistics and hides Hatfield’s problems.[10]

Hatfield is hidden and not just literally hidden away by the A1 rushing on one side and the mainline train to Scotland on the other. It is hidden because we have not caught up with the way world forces are shaping realities on the ground and turning once viable industrial towns into today’s global wasteland.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘The new geographies of racism: Plymouth

Read an IRR News story: ‘The new geographies of racism: Stoke-on-Trent

Read an IRR News story: ‘The new geographies of racism: Peterborough

Read an IRR News story: ‘Learning the lessons of dispersal

[1] See also [2] Hatfield centre was expecting a massive redevelopment as from 2000 when the local council and English Partnership announced a £100m plan. After much consultation, the idea was put on hold in 2008. In 2010 new plans were put forward for a modified £45m redevelopment – which has so far eventuated in one building site. [3] The university markets itself to overseas students, offering relatively low fees, bursaries and the fact that the campus is just half an hour from London. According to wikipedia it has 5,200 students from overseas. [4] According to the 2011 census data, 27 per cent of residents in the constituency of Wewyn/Hatfield do not have English as a main language. And the percentage of those who described themselves as ‘White’ changed from 94 per cent to 84 percent between 2001 and 2011. [5] [6] Though Bukky Olawoyin, an avowedly Christian Conservative, won a ward seat from Labour in 2010 by twenty-three votes. [7] See, for example, Jane Kelly (consulting editor of the Salisbury Review) writing ‘I feel like a stranger where I live’ in The Telegraph, 29 January 2013. [8] Quoted in ‘Areospace site has “really taken off” in Welwyn Hatfield Times, 20 February 2013. [9]­_letters/101 [10] See pieces by Ewan Foskett, Welwyn Hatfield Times 7 and 15 February 2013.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

15 thoughts on “The new wasteland

  1. This article, while capturing the essentials, has several factual errors and it would probably have served the author rather better to speak to local people then view those awful websites where people post complete fabrications of reality (schoolgirl prostitutes?)

    The town centre is remarkably safe, (compared to others) late at night, mainly because no-one, yobs and thieves included, have much cause to be there once the sun and the shutters have come down.

  2. I live in Hatfield. The town centre is a dump, as the article suggests, and has not been renovated as some town centres have recently, but it is a tiny part of Hatfield. There is little violence by comparison with other deprived areas, and people of all ages, origins, and educational attainments get on with each other. Everyone from professors to feral families shops at the ASDA. The line about schoolgirl prostitutes must be a sick joke. Perhaps they were wearing short tartan skirts? That’s the girls’ uniform of the school closest to the town centre, Jenny. Street fashion may look even more tarty than it was in our day, but don’t be fooled.

  3. According to the Neighbourhood Watch Hatfield is a relatively safe place to live and work.
    Hatfield Town Centre is unattractive and unloved a victim of the recession but do not think because the the Town Centre is like it is the rest of Hatfield is the same, it is not!
    To me Hatfield is a friendly, pleasant and convenient place to live.

  4. The article is somewhat one-sided in it’s portayal of Hatfield. Hatfield town centre, in common with virtually all UK town centres, has suffered from long-term trends such as competition from out-of-town shopping centres, and the rise of internet shopping. But there is still much to like about Hatfield. The Galleria is a major shopping and dining & entertainment venue, the business park has been successful in attracting major employers to the town, and the University is a source of prestige. Town centre regeneration is underway, and the railway station is about to undergo a major upgrade.

  5. I have to agree that the article seems rather one-sided.

    In terms of the Town Centre – regeneration is underway, which is unusual for a town centre in today’s climate. It was great Hatfield won its Portas bid and progress is being made with several initiatives.

    But as others say there is more than the town centre and I certainly recommend Lynne Spark’s blog mentioned above!

  6. Things will definitely be looking up for Hatfield Town Centre over the next few months as the modified regeneration scheme gets going. There are plans to have a bandstand with money that we received from the Mary Portas scheme, so there is likely to be live music to help draw people to the area.

    I certainly agree that newcomers to Hatfield have done a great deal to shore up the town. And the food banks which operate in both Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City are largely staffed by members of African Pentacostal churches. Of course it is dreadful that these banks are needed but we are very grateful to those who are giving up their time to meet this need.

  7. Jenny, I completely agree with the other commentators here. I’m afraid in-between making some valid observations, you’ve completely misrepresented Hatfield!

    As other contributors have pointed out this is actually a pretty safe town. Your line about schoolgirl prostitutes and drug dealers making the central square (by which you mean White Lion Sq) unsafe, is completely unrecognizable.

    You’re wrong about the political make-up of the Town which is not “strongly Labour”. In fact the Town Council has been Conservative for the past decade, having previously been strongly Labour. And even in the Town Centre itself (Hatfield Central ward) Conservatives have a Councillor. It’s also where our Welwyn Hatfield Conservative Constituency office is located.

    You’re factually wrong to quote gossip on the Welwyn Hatfield Forum and elsewhere that inaccurately suggests that the Borough Council doesn’t invest money in Hatfield. In fact it’s recently taken millions of pounds out of receipts from the Sainsbury development in Welwyn Garden City and put it into the Hatfield Town Centre project. Another million has just been spent on refurbishing the housing tower block (Queensway House) which dominates the town landscape.

    As a Labour Councillor points out above, there’s actually some redevelopment going on in the town centre right now – including to the bookend shops so depressingly pictured in your article.

    Next up, you’re factually wrong about the employment on the former aerospace site not employing locals. Not that you’d know it from your article, but local unemployment is much less than half the national average. People who work in firms locally – like Ocado and others – are very much local citizens in Hatfield. Of course some companies who have moved here from elsewhere have brought their workforce with them, but others recruit almost exclusively locally. When I regularly knock on doors with my MP’s Action Team in Hatfield, I often ask where people work and it’s very frequently on the Hatfield Business Park. You are just plain wrong about your assertions here. You forgot to mention that the Business Park now employs more people than aerospace ever did.

    It takes something to unite people from all different political perspectives, but as the comments on this thread demonstrate, I’m afraid your article – which does make some good valid points about the new and vibrant population of Hatfield – lets itself down by quoting a load of inaccurate hearsay. I’m sure my colleagues from across the political spectrum would be keen for you to join us in Hatfield so you can gain a deeper understanding of our town which is less based on random Forum and blog posts and more on reality.

    Happy to host such a meeting. Please get in touch


  8. In the interests of balance, given that there are at least four local councillors commenting here (apart from Cathy Watson and Grant Shapps who have indicated their official positions), while there are inaccuracies in the article the general gist – that Hatfield has become a shadow of its former self – is, in my opinion as a resident of over 20-years, true.

    Parts of Hatfield among most deprived in country, new study reveals

    Perhaps what should particularly concern groups involved with the welfare of vulnerable groups (like young homeless and learning difficulties) is the apparent concentration of them and facilities dedicated to them in a very small town, which contrary to protestations here has been suffering from what appears to be a deliberate policy of neglect and chronic underinvestment.

    Some details on some of the issues highlighting the disparity between Hatfield and its dominant partner town in the borough of Welwyn-Hatfield can be found at:

    Hatfield has a terrific location and history and could have easily been turned into one of the most sought after commuter towns.

  9. The author seems to be a frustrated local, i can see her point to some extent some points being exaggerated, i belong to the 3rd generation of Hatfield and run a local business serving the community, my kids being the 4th, No doubt Hatfield has changed from the small close nit community where every one used to know every one walking through the town centre but as stated in the above comments that we are still in a safer area compared to others, change is sometimes good, all we can hope for that the change in Hatfield is for the better, Learn to live in peace and may be adopt the positive things the other races are bringing with them in to the area.
    Key words being Peace,Harmony and Tolerance.

  10. I just stumbled upon this article and, as an actual resident of the “Hatfield Central” area of Hatfield, I barely recognised the place where I live. The Institute of Race Relations are right to say that the racial make-up of Hatfield has changed dramatically in the past few years. What ought to please the institute is the way this has been accomplished with hardly any fuss. Grant Shapps points out correctly that the business park employs far more people than British Aerospace ever did, and despite commuters, it is a fact that the majority are residents of Hatfield. The town centre re-development is well under way and despite the article’s criticism of the shops, they do serve the day to day needs of our community. ASDA are right there in the middle of town, not on some typical out of town site and they attract a strong footfall. The Asian mini-markets have as many Europeans shopping in them as Asians. Businesses in the centre include two dispensing chemists, a dentist, four major high street bank branches, a bakers, estate agencies, solicitors’ offices, several cafes and fast food outlets. My wife and I hardly ever need to leave town for anything and all our needs are within walking distance. Yes the town centre looks somewhat shabby, but that is changing, with two building sites in work already and more building works to come. For an article on the Institute of Race Relation’s website to complain of the town being run down and imply indirectly that this is associated with an influx of foreigners is odd. It might be more accurate to associate the influx with the obvious signs of an upturn in our local fortunes. Hatfield certainly has its problems and we work constantly to deal with them, but none of these real problems gets a single mention in the article. One day I might read an accurate representation of Hatfield, but this certainly wasn’t a good description of the place where I choose to live.

  11. An interesting article painting a totally alien portrait to anyone who actually lives in Hatfield. The unsubstantiated and uneducated comment regarding “Schoolgirl prostitution” is almost laughable if it was not so offensive to the parents of these children who are traveling to and from school.

    The mismanagement and loss of £42 million by the Labour council over the Galleria fiasco crippled the investment that could have helped rebuild the town after years of lethargy.

    Yes tHatfield has seen better times but the people of Hatfield are the real fabric of the town not the drab town centre exteriors. Talk to people on the street and you will find a pride way beyond your provocative and uneducated article. The comment by Nas is so true, we live in relative peace and harmony whether we originated in Hatfield or are new to the area. Hatfield has a great past and will have a great future.

  12. The problem with Hatfield is just the Town Centre
    More control should be made on the type of shop owners and how the shops look visually, the Town does not need an over influx of African hairdressers and food stores, mini markets and coffee shops, to much of the same does not attract
    most of the community,or attract visits from other areas,the Town Centre is the main focus point of any town, clean up the town inprove the look ( kerb appeal ) and people will come, and things will change.

  13. I only just come across this article — it is now March 2018. I find that it very accurately summarises the sentiment of many of us who live in Hatfield. The redevelopment has not progressed as many of the council members and the MP above proclaimed and there is an ever increasing monetary divide between Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield. If you read the council notes from Hatfield and Welwyn Gardeb City it is very telling. Most of us would not feel safe walking through the town centre at night. I very much hope your article will gain a wider audience ( perhaps you should consider a follow-up in one of the national papers) and that it helps to facilitate a change that is very much needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.