The Arena: retain, refurbish or replace?
Many of you will have seen the Council’s announcement (details here) that they are thinking of demolishing the Arena and building a new purpose built theatre in its place as part of the redevelopment of the area around the Arena, Civic Centre and multi storey car park (called City Centre Opportunity Site North and Culture, CCOSN). Contrary to reports you may have seen the Civic Society was not consulted on this proposal and we have written to the Council expressing our disappointment and asking for some more information about the rationale for the recommendation. We have also requested a meeting to discuss this further and will update members on progress.
Until we have more information the Civic Society cannot form an informed view on whether or not it should support this proposal and in the meantime we would be very glad to hear your views. Is the current Arena, designed originally by eminent architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, an important structure which should be retained and adapted or should it be demolished to make way for a modern purpose built theatre? What do you think? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A number of members and others have expressed concerns and worries about the future of the Charter Market. Some of the matters raised are:
- Concern that there is a plan to downgrade or do away with the Charter Market in favour of other markets and other activities. Purported plans for an indoor market is feared to compromise the Charter Market
- That stall holders have been asked to sign contracts with onerous and unreasonable terms
- Plans for expanded Al Fresco dining will affect the viability of the Charter Market as there will be less space for stalls
- Possible proposals for events in St Peter’s St on Wednesday and Saturday evenings will compromise the market as they will have to pack up early to allow for this preparation.
- Concern that the current “Rag Bag” of gazebos looks unattractive and uncoordinated and absence of clarity over what the longer-term plan is and what scope there is for consultation with market stall holders and residents.
- A fear that the driving force for change is the development of the Drovers Way site for commercial gain with the market as an accepted casualty of that.
It is undeniable that the market is looking rather sad with some of the fruit and vegetable stalls no longer there and other traders questioning if it is worth the cost and hassle of providing and erecting their own stall. The Society believes the existence the Charter Market must be supported and encouraged to thrive both as a service to residents as well as being an attraction for visitors. We have requested a meeting with the Council and will report back. For more information on the traders concerns see https://www.stalbanschartermarket.com/
A Neighbourhood Plan for the centre of St Albans
What is a Neighbourhood Plan and what is it for? Please think about this – a neighbourhood plan normally lasts for 15 years so this is long term and will affect you.
It is a plan developed by the community for a defined area and it has statutory authority and sets out how developers etc. are required to act. It sits alongside the Local Plan but has more detail for that area. So it can set out policies for a range of aspects – for example, sustainable development, transport, community facilities etc. and deliver real benefits. Deciding on the area is vitally important – not only does it define who can be part of the organisation that decides on the policies etc. and then those who are able to vote whether the plan should be adopted, but it also defines the area in which those policies apply. So, if a very narrow part of the City Centre (for example the BID area) is selected to be the Neighbourhood then not only will those outside the area not be able to vote on the plan but any policies set out in the plan (on transport for example) will only apply in that narrow area.
What area is the Neighbourhood for the City Centre area? That is the 64000 dollar question. In a parished area (such as Harpenden) the defined Neighbourhood Area is the Parish area. A large part of St Albans, including the centre, does not have a parish and for such areas the position is much more complicated. It is necessary to consult and reach agreement on what area should be the neighbourhood area and the council will have responsibility for deciding whether this is appropriate, A Neighbourhood Forum made up only of people living or working in, or councillors for, that area will then be responsible for developing the plan.
So, what do you think should be seen as the City Centre Neighbourhood? Is it a very narrow area or should it be larger and more inclusive? Central council wards is one possibility or maybe Residents’ Associations covering the central area. What else? A Steering Group led by BID (now with a Civic Society representative) is coordinating this activity (under the name of City Centre Vision) and will be organising public meetings so please get involved and feed in your thoughts on what a central neighbourhood for St Albans should be. This is your opportunity to firstly influence the shape of this neighbourhood and then to contribute to the plan itself.
City Centre Opportunity Site South (CCOSS)
The public voted for Option 2 in the Council organised vote. This scheme is, designed by Space and Place, who were already contracted to the Council with regard to CCOSN(orth). It received a winning 57% of the vote out of 429 (it has to be admitted that the number of participants, voting on such an important project for the city, is disappointing but this may well have been another consequence of the Covid-19 crisis). The public vote counted towards 50% of the decision-making, the remainder was linked to various indicators from sustainability to design costs. The Council opposition had several concerns about Option 2 and the selection process: the level of consultation; the appropriateness of the design; the budget, both in terms of cost and financial return; and the integrity of the voting procedure. They ‘called in’ the project and it was debated at the Planning, Resources, Housing and Commercial Scrutiny Committee on 11th June 2020.
The Society was invited to virtually attend and did make a non-party political representation, giving its support to the option method of selecting a design. The point was made that the Society would have preferred a competition from scratch which would have allowed the architects a completely free hand in preparing their designs. However, as some works had already been carried out and there were clear financial constraints, the Society recognised the need for compromise and so were prepared to endorse the administration’s proposal to offer their options to the public. It was considered preferable over the previous planning application where no choice of design was offered to the public. For the full history of our involvement with CCOSS, click here
It surely comes as no surprise that the British public ‘overwhelmingly’ showed a preference for traditional architecture over brutalism in a recent poll conducted by the Policy Exchange. The survey of over 1,500 people found that the majority liked public buildings built in the 19th -century style through to the early 20th century the best. Top of the poll came Bristol City Hall built in 1952 to a Neo-Georgian style. Indeed, the top five were all built in a traditional design whilst those at the bottom of the poll were all post-modern and brutalist, built after 1960. We can draw some similar comparisons right here in St Albans along St Peter’s Street. Framed at the southern end is the former Town Hall, built 1830 to a Neo-Grecian style, architect George Smith. Whilst we have seen the once brutal façade of the BHS building demolished, there are the somewhat block-like buildings opposite currently housing Barclays and a betting shop, namely Lockey and Forrester Houses respectively (Gibbard 1960). We wonder how people rate them?
That BHS building has been replaced by a new hotel (Travelodge) which with its more traditional brick façade, and despite some controversial adornments, blends in much better with the street scene. Its entrance is in Drovers Way. There an opportunity presents itself – but will it be missed? Drovers Way, until recently presented a very off-putting look to anyone arriving into St Albans seeking this cathedral city’s multi-storey car park. It gave a bad impression and more like some ‘armpit of St Albans’ welcome. But things have started to change for the better. Now there is the Premier Inn building’s entrance, a modern block of flats on the former Butler’s site and the new Travelodge entrance. The market stalls compound might be up for possible development; the former nightclub is to become residential and there is the area at the rear of the empty Holland and Barrett and Pound Shop stores.
This is a real opportunity to enhance the streetscape. It is to be hoped architects, developers and the Council’s planners and Councillors will take notice of the recent poll and the public’s preference for well-designed, modern buildings reflecting some traditional characteristics with an overall planning vision. Along with some pedestrian safety measures at certain pinch points, Drovers Way could become considerably enhanced, thus demonstrating the Government’s aim in its planning reforms to ‘build beautiful’ in keeping with local designs and people’s preferences.
Planning for the Future
We have submitted a detailed response to the Government consultation document. You can read our response here.
It seems that the underlying premise of the While Paper is that an outdated planning system is not fit for purpose and is a primary cause of the failure to build enough homes for a growing population. This is not an entirely fair analysis, as a lack of strategic thinking has also contributed to the housing crisis. The reliance on market forces to entirely solve the shortage of homes has been misguided and has created a dearth of appropriate residences, especially in regard to affordable and social housing.
The Society shares the view that the present planning system is too complex and, therefore, tends to exclude local participation while at the same time allowing developers to build, too often, poor quality designs. Though many of the general objectives of the While Paper are laudable in sentiment, the lack of practical details raise many concerns, especially with regard to the level of local input and in what could result in a very top down system. An overall criticism would be that while identifying problems in the existing planning system the White Paper proposals fall short of coming up with credible solutions in meeting the objectives of a faster, more transparent, simpler, democratic process that will produce affordable high quality build and protect communities’ existing heritage.
We believe that Civic Societies, like that of our own in St Albans, with their local knowledge and pool of expertise can help and support the planning process from the initial development to the planning application stage. Their commitment to creating ‘better places’ make Civic Societies powerful allies both in engaging local communities and insisting on high quality developments.
Local Plan Consultation
The Society has responded to the St Albans District Council Local Plan consultation concerning the future development of the City from 2020 to 2036. In our response we recognise the importance of a new Local Plan (LP) which is needed, in order to update the previous LP, drafted in 1994. This is, not only to ensure that the authority’s LP is compatible with latest edition of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in July 2018, but also that the District Council will not have to relinquish its control, over planning in the district, to Government, because there has been a failure to produce an approved, up-to-date Plan. You can read our full response here.
Luton Airport Consultation
Another application has been made by Luton Airport to increase their annual passenger numbers and amend the day and night noise limitations to accommodate this. The consultation is on the Luton Council website and comments must be made by 17 February 2021. If you would like to respond there is a lot of useful information available on the LADACAN website here.
The Society submitted an objection the expansion of Luton Airport in 2018 and you can read the response here.