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Comment: Workhorse does not deserve its hellish reputation
The outgoing manager of intu Watford (née the Harlequin), Mike Stevens, is a rare animal in the commercial world: He speaks clear, engaging English.
It is a remarkable trait among the business fraternity. Many in their ranks succumb to an acute linguistic malady where they speak almost exclusively in boardroomese, rendering their utterances largely meaningless to the uninitiated.
Yet I have always found Mr Stevens, who retires later this month, a refreshing exception. He is candid, thoughtful, humorous and incisive. As such, when I sat down with him for a farewell interview this week, I was keen to get his parting assessment on Watford and its economic state.
It was while he was in the midst of talking about what he likes about the town that he listed a feature that probably would not make the final cut for most residents – the ring road.
Well, maybe “like” is a tad strong, but Mr Stevens emerged as a trenchant defender of the tarmac moat encircling his shopping centre. He averred this “infamous” road was “much maligned” by motorists, and unfairly so in his opinion.
As someone whose nomadic career has seen him work in numerous cities across the UK, he proffered that he had endured far worse town-centre traffic systems.
He argued the ring road had developed its unwarranted reputation due to its ability to utterly seize up every now and then.
Yet in his 12 years at the helm of the town’s largest shopping centre, Mr Stevens said he could only recall half a dozen times where the road had really become overwhelmed. It may seem like a fringe concern, but for intu Watford, perceptions about the ring road could have a foreseeable impact on the number of visitors.
If shoppers are deterred by its reputation as a formidable traffic obstacle, especially at busy periods like the run up to Christmas, they may opt for other commercial options which are easier to get to.
As a relatively new driver myself, I understand how the road can loom large in the consciousness of the inexperienced or nervous motorist.
After passing my driving test, the spectre of venturing onto the ring road unaccompanied by a professional instructor filled me with trepidation.
First there is the bewildering system of lanes all merging into one another in a seemingly arbitrary pattern. Numerous times I was wrong-footed by the high-speed game of lane stick-or-twist and found myself being haplessly siphoned off along a trunk road I had no intention of heading down.
These formative experiences are not helped by the more seasoned ring road drivers, who show little quarter to struggling dilettantes.
Over time, familiarity has divested the ring road of its ability to befuddle and intimidate me.
Nowadays I happily glide around it with the rest of the Watford motoring cognoscenti.
And although past traumas mean it’s hard to develop any affection for the ring road, I can now begrudgingly acknowledge it is actually quite effective at keeping things moving around the town centre.
Fair enough, it will never be something that actively attracts people to Watford. And it will always harbour that infuriating knack of completely snarling up at Christmas, locking commuters and shopper into hours of traffic purgatory.
But maybe the ring road is in reality an unrecognised workhorse that benefits Watford more than its maligned reputation would suggest.
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