Post-Covid Hertfordshire: Herts has been at the forefront of recovery before, and can be again

Welwyn was established as a garden city after the First World War then became a designated new town

Welwyn was established as a garden city after the First World War then became a designated new town after the Second World War (photo: Cmglee) - Credit: Cmglee

We need to rebuild our economy and confidence as we come out of lockdown. History shows Hertfordshire has been at the forefront of ideas for recovery before, and can be again

Stevenage town centre with its iconic clock tower and Franka Belsky ‘Joyride’ statue. Stevenage was

Stevenage town centre with its iconic clock tower and Franka Belsky ‘Joyride’ statue. Stevenage was designated the UK’s first new town courtesy of the New Towns Act of 1946 (photo: Ruth Ward) - Credit: Ruth Ward

As the saying goes, ‘things can only get better.’ We’re hopefully past the worst of Covid-19 and we are witnessing a nation and a county emerging from lockdown. There is not yet a permanent solution to the virus and there are gloomy forecasts for the economy, yet we have been here before – more than once – and have recovered. And can do so again.

I’ll start with the First World War, the one that should have been over by Christmas, but lasted more than four years and saw the first German Zeppelin shot down over Hertfordshire. Dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, it was inconceivable there could be another on the same scale. The war and the deadly influenza pandemic that followed it from 1918 to 1920 left the world reeling.

Recovery came quickly though. In Watford, slum clearance had halted in 1914 but recommenced after the war with more council house building. Shortly after the conflict’s end, land belonging to Berkhamsted Hall was sold and many acres developed with council housing. The first of these new homes also appeared in Bushey in the early 1920s. Optimism was in the air: Welwyn Garden City was founded in 1920, Rickmansworth was a ‘Metroland’ town expanding from the 1920s, and Borehamwood became a centre of the UK film industry also from the 1920s.

The optimism of that decade turned to dust after Hitler came to power in Germany. As the 1930s progressed, the certainties that had gradually built up in Hertfordshire, and the country, were subsumed by anxieties that came to fateful fruition when the Second World War began in September ‘39. The conflict was the most destructive war in human history, lasting six years, and left the nation with much damage and debt. And yet, just as happened a generation before, recovery came, and relatively quickly.

Hertfordshire had its scars. At Hemel Hempstead, for example, a stick of bombs demolished houses at Nash Mills on May 10, 1942, killing eight. The nearby Dickinson munitions factories had been the target. The munitions and the planes made in Hertfordshire had contributed to the war effort and growth continued after the conflict. Hatfield saw de Havilland become its largest employer (4,000 by 1949), Radlett’s aerodrome hosted Handley Page and Baldock had a parachute factory. Spitfires had flown out of RAF Sawbridgeworth.

There would be much rebuilding needed, but both Hertfordshire and Britain were up for it. It would take sacrifice, and began with austerity. It was all a bit grey and drab. The winter of 1946-47 was the coldest in living memory. Rationing would not end until 1954.

The Parade and pond in Watford. Hertfordshire’s largest town, saw much council house building after

The Parade and pond in Watford. Hertfordshire’s largest town, saw much council house building after the First World War as the slum clearance that had been underway before the conflict was resumed (photo: Ben Sutherland) - Credit: Ben Sutherland

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There were green shoots though – the Olympics of 1948, the ‘Austerity Games’, in London (the marathon went through Radlett). King George VI attended the first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, the Festival of Britain took place over the summer of 1951, and by 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan confidently declared: ‘You’ve never had it so good’.

The New Towns Act of 1946 set in motion a string of ambitious new towns. Stevenage was the first one designated, planned with self-contained neighbourhoods and a pedestrianised town centre that was the first purpose-built traffic-free shopping zone in Britain, while a network of cycle lanes across the town separated bicycles from traffic.

Hemel Hempstead was also designated, with new factories, as in Stevenage, built to prevent the town becoming a dormitory, and the redevelopment of the town centre. Welwyn and Hatfield were also included. A new town centre featured in the latter’s plans and the town still retains its 1950s modernist architecture plus the trees and open spaces that went with it. Now, those new towns are being regenerated – an economic fillip when it’s most needed.

It wasn’t just the new towns providing stimulus. St Albans expanded rapidly as part of the post-war redistribution of population out of London. Borehamwood also saw large areas of council housing created for Londoners displaced by bombing. At South Oxhey, a new estate was built by London County Council.

It wasn’t just Brits moving in either. Hoddesdon became the only small town in Britain with a sizeable Italian community. Italian PoWs had worked on farms in the Lea Valley, then were given land after the war so they could continue to contribute to the local area.

The war had been grim, but in its wake came a better, more comfortable world. Funding was made available to improve living conditions and quality of life – ‘utopia’ was in the air. It took time but Britain and Hertfordshire recovered from the exigencies of both world wars and the same will assuredly happen after this latest calamity. Bold steps were taken in the immediate post war periods and similarly ambitious thinking may be required to regenerate the economy this time, on the part of both central and local government. People can and will help and individual actions and choices can make a difference.

Hertfordshire was certainly hit hard with relatively large number of Covid-19 cases, likely due to the county’s location in the commuter belt. Hertfordshire County Council estimates the cost of lockdown at above £64m while 10 local authorities distributed over £180m in small business grants to more than 14,000 companies.

Unemployment claims rose by 170 per cent in Herts from March and approaching 140,000 claims were made to furlough workers on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme by the end of May (over 18 per cent of the county workforce). Nearly 50,000 claimed under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme by the same point, a take up of just over 70 per cent of those eligible. Monsoon Accessorize announced the permanent closure of its St Albans and Hitchin stores while Watford became the latest Debenhams to close in Herts.

Social distancing presents real issues for Hertfordshire’s historic high streets with their quaint narrow pavements and roads. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Some businesses benefited from the online shift, such as Ocado, whose HQ is in Hatfield. Also, any crisis enables valuable lessons to be learned.

The Institute of Directors recognises this as a watershed moment in terms of reorienting priorities towards things like climate change and social impact. Regional director Simone Robinson said the positivity shown in adversity has been heart-warming. The Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership has been providing intelligence on the impact of Covid-19 on the business community, while the Hertfordshire Growth Hub has been supplying vital support to help local businesses stay afloat.

The tourism and hospitality sector has faced extraordinary challenges. Visit Herts is at the forefront as the county’s destination management service. Its business website collates the latest information on funding and support schemes that are available locally and from central government. All of these are examples of the collective local leadership that’s providing the strategic direction needed to forge a way through this – locally tailored support to run alongside national interventions. Let’s not forget charities either, which have also been hit. Watford Borough Council’s Covid-19 charity appeal has raised £150,000 for 20 local causes.

I’ll leave the last word to Briege Leahy, CEO of Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce: ‘We’ve definitely gone through stages – from the start of lockdown when it felt like a battle for survival to now when people have become expectant again and are keen to move on. The government packages have certainly been a lifesaver, but it’s now up to individuals and businesses to embrace this ‘new normal’. Those who have the positivity and adaptability to do this will thrive. It is an opportunity and that can be inspiring. Hertfordshire has a lot going for it with a lot of modern go-ahead businesses. The recovery has started.’