Reasons for the Society’s objections to the Civic Centre Opportunity South Site (CCOSS)
Planning Application 5/2019/2001
When the Society was first invited to engage with CCOSS, it had already refused to take part in the ‘Look St Albans’ charrette, as it did not want its hands tied by such a consultative consensus (the Society does not believe in ‘design by committee’), nor did it feel this was actually the right point in the process to seek public consultation. The Society’s position was reaffirmed when the Community Design Review was set up (run by the same person who facilitated the charrette), which both excluded organisations from taking part and asked participants to sign up to the Review’s conclusions before it had even met!
The Society has a Design Advisory Group (DAG) which was specifically established for pre-consultation with developers but there is also a Planning Advisory Group (PAG), which looks at all planning applications and advises the Executive Committee whether to lodge an objection or not. There is essentially a so-called ‘Chinese wall’ between the two advisory bodies. The separation of advisory bodies is always explained in any pre-consultations, so working with DAG does not guarantee the Society’s support for a planning application!
The Society, subsequently, was invited by the Portfolio Holder for Development to meet with the officers and Council’s consultant, to discuss CCOSS, and members of DAG attended. The Society’s chairman also attended several sessions, as it was considered such an important development for the City. It was made clear at the beginning of this meeting and at a subsequent meeting with the new Portfolio Holder, after the Council Cabinet changed, that the Society did not like the starting point of the plan (Angle Properties’ permitted planning application) and would have preferred an architectural competition. The Society’s argument was that, for such an important development in a critical quarter, there should be an open competition which would provide options that were far more likely to produce a ‘wow’ scheme, and meet the Council’s own brief to create “listed buildings of the future” and “a landmark building as a key gateway feature “.
However, a competition had been ruled out of court by the Council so the Society, recognising the political realities of the situation, agreed for DAG to work with the Council and the architects, BDP, to achieve a design which made the best of the existing planning application (though such were the changes a new planning application had to be made.).
There were several meetings between DAG the Council and BDP, who were always willing to listen to DAG and were most accommodating, so it is understandable that the officers are frustrated as, despite the explanation of the protocols of DAG and PAG, there, apparently, was a belief that the Society was fully on board with the application.
The Society, as a democratic body, had for some time promised its members a meeting on the planning application. The meeting was held on 23rd September, at which the present Portfolio Holder and the officers made a presentation. The meeting was held in a neutral manner but it soon emerged that the mood of the members was hostile to the application; and this opposition, in fact, reflected the written submissions the Society had already received from members unable to attend. The reasons given for this negative response to the planning application were: the development was seen as ‘standard and ordinary’, ‘too bulky’, not reflecting St Albans’ heritage, not ‘enhancing’ and therefore, given it would be there for the foreseeable future, not ‘good enough’ for St Albans.
At the Society’s Executive Committee meeting later in the week PAG advised the Society to object to the planning application and the trustees, recognising their members views and understanding the change in the political situation, voted unanimously to support PAG’s recommendation to object.
There is now a strong momentum to ask the Council to withdraw the present planning application and rethink the CCOSS development, with a view to an open architectural competition, so that the ambition laid out in the Council brief is achieved.
Tim Boatswain, Chairman 11 October, 2019
Click on the link to see Letter from Helen Bishop, a member of the Society, commenting on some of the issues raised above.