Latest News from LOOK! St Albans
Should you wish to receive our news update direct to your inbox please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I last wrote to you last in June and since then members of the representative group and officers have been very busy behind the scenes building up our new website and attending many online presentations. After one of these a Reps Group member mentioned that they had no idea how widespread co-design was across the country.
Well, that is unsurprising as every attempt has been made locally to make you believe to the contrary.
Look! continues to enhance our profile on the national stage and are regularly receives inquiries from professionals and communities outside the district who are very interested in what the community has achieved here and especially about our co-authored design codes.
However once again I cannot focus in this news update on the positive aspects of what we have collective achieved in St Albans, but focus once again on the City Centre Opportunity Site.
A note to you from our Treasurer Chris Debenham
“The Council (SADC) has recently submitted a planning application, ref 5/2020/1773 October 2020, for the development of one of the most important sites in St Albans, the southern part of the Civic Centre Opportunity Site (CCOS). Other than the usual statutory notices, very little publicity has been given to the application and that the final date for representations is 6th November. As Look! St Albans’ role is to encourage community engagement in the design of buildings and open spaces in central St Albans, we urge St Albans residents to view the proposal on SADC’s website, and comment as they think appropriate.
Within the Herts Advertiser there have been occasional references to the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/861832/Living_with_beauty_BBBBC_report.pdf
The government has also produced recently the https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/907956/Planning_for_the_Future_web_accessible_version.pdf White Paper. Positive comments regarding the former in particular have printed usually relate to the introduction of design codes to govern best design practice – a set of which already exists for central St Albans, having been agreed by the St Albans community with the support of SADC and its Head of Planning in 2012, working with The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. However, no mention has been made of one of the most significant changes that is likely to be introduced, which is a requirement that councils and developers genuinely engage with and draw on the expertise of the local community at the design stage of a development.
It remains to be seen what the final form is of any new legislation but, by the time SADC addresses CCOS North, it may have had to agree with the local community the design codes that would determine the nature of future development in St Albans, and may also have to engage with the local community in co-creating the specific plans and designs for CCOS North alongside SADC, any other landowners and the professionals – a methodology already adopted voluntarily by a number of other planning authorities. If any of this transpires, the methods for developing CCOS could be:-
CCOS South – top down planning under which the community is consulted on someone else’s plans and design.
CCOS North – bottom up planning under which the local community co-creates the plans and design that are carried forward to a planning application.
The results within what is fundamentally a single development project could be very different. Nobody with local democracy genuinely at heart will object to the earliest possible involvement of the community in the planning and design process, and specifically in determining the governing design codes that will shape the buildings and open spaces of St Albans.”
From Mel Hilbrown Look! Vice Chair “The community gave over a 1,000 hours of input with the help of professional advisors to develop the original master plan for this site and CCOS North, and devised two viable concept plans. Unfortunately the council did not progress with this process down to the detail site planning stage. As a result we have gone from community engagement – which is becoming part of planning guidance and policy currently, to community consultation, which just enables the community to have a say on the work of others. We have since been through a Community Design Review, and that design was subsequently rejected, and a design competition. This is the outcome of that competition so this is the last chance for the community to have its say on what long-term residents will be living with in their city centre. Do make your feelings known to the council, whether you are in favour of this design or object to it. Look! St Albans only interest as a body is to support community engagement in design.”
The all party council Overview and Scrutiny committee’s scrutinised what is now widely accepted as a fatally flawed competition process. The conclusions which was based on much of what you sent to them and can be found https://stalbans.moderngov.co.uk/documents/b50013766/ITEM%2010%20-%20City%20Centre%20Opportunity%20Site%20South%20Call-in%20-%20Presentations%20Look%20St%20Albans%20Open%20Letter%20an.pdf?T=9
For too many years we have put up with the reality of others 1950’s ‘vision’ for a ‘new city centre’. That vision is now dust, and many would say good riddance. Is what has been decided by others to replace it worthy to be our collective legacy to future residents? That is for you to answer, your voice on design should be heard, put your views on record by writing them to email@example.com quoting ref 5/2020/1773 by 6th November.
Our response to the planning application can be found here https://lookstalbans.org/look-response-to-planning-application-5-2020-1773-for-the-city-centre-opportunity-site-october-2020/ Look St Albans response to CCOS planning application
I look very much forward to seeing hopefully many of you on Monday 9th November. It is online and will be our first interactive event.
Vanessa Gregory Chair Look! St Albans
Diary date: Monday 9th November, 7:15pm – 8:30pm Look! St Albans’ first online interactive event. Do join us, full details to follow………………
It is with deep regret that the officers of Look! St Albans felt obliged to write the following letter of objection to the planning application 5/2020/1773 for the City Centre Opportunity Site. They have limited their objection, as per the constitution, to process and not regarding the design. It is for residents to make their own representation to the planning department firstname.lastname@example.org quoting the above reference.
“Look! St Albans – Our Community Voice on Design does not have the remit through its constitution to comment on the design of any planning application.
As officers of Look! St Albans we must limit ourselves to objecting to the misleading statements regarding the process to be found in both the Design and Access Statement and Statement of Community Involvement. Both documents infer that the early community engagement that was undertaken by the applicant informed and retains relevance in this and the previous planning application for the CCOS site. The applicant has made it abundantly clear that they rejected that work by the community and therefore it is misleading at the very least to say that work informs this application before you.
We think it is worth recapping the reason why Look! St Albans was formed post the City Centre Steering Group, which enabled the community with the support of the Council and its Head of Planning in 2012 to work with the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community.
The principal reason was that for too long arguments and poor quality design had characterised attempts to find a viable solution for this site (the site of this planning application) at the heart of our City. Our joint objective, supported then by the Planning Department, was that the St Albans community had a wealth of knowledge and understanding of and pride in our City, and we jointly wanted these benefits to be used positively in determining the built environment and surrounding open spaces for this site.
To that end the Steering Group and The Foundation engaged with the local community to co-createdesign codes for the City Centre. The codes are not a full suite but are sufficient to promote durable, loose fit adaptable buildings and open spaces using materials conducive to longevity.
This planning application before you is the result of an ill-advised design competition, not the community-led charrette nor the Community Design Review that preceded this application. The competition was open to abuse, and invited and received minimal participation from the community and it is therefore highly regrettable that the Council as landowner and developer has chosen to proceed on this most important site in St Albans on that basis.
Despite repeated requests the actual design brief for the recent design competition that formed the basis of this planning application has not been made public knowledge.
Many of those who took part originally in the Masterplanning charrette of 2016 were motivated by a spirit of joint endeavour and sense of pride in what the community could achieve collectively. Those who took part are now left dispirited by the total disregard of the outcome of that process, intended for the betterment of this site.
The charrette itself and the outcome were finalists in The Royal Town Planning Institute Awards in excellence in planning both nationally and regionally in 2017. Those in the facilitation team who led the process are recognised experts in their fields.
Indeed many of those who took part in the Masterplanning design charrette have made their feelings known to us, but it is up to the individuals to make their representations to this application in the usual way which we shall encourage them to do.
These comments should come as no surprise to the applicant as we have expressed these directly to them before this planning application was submitted.
We comment below on the relevant planning policies and guidance in relation to this planning application:-
National Planning Policy Framework states:-
128. Design quality should be considered throughout the evolution and assessment of individual proposals. Early discussion between applicants, the local planning authority and local community about the design and style of emerging schemes is important for clarifying expectations and reconciling local and commercial interests. Applicants should work closely with those affected by their proposals to evolve designs that take account of the views of the community. Applications that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot.
129. Local planning authorities should ensure that they have access to, and make appropriate use of, tools and processes for assessing and improving the design of development. These include workshops to engage the local community, design advice and review arrangements, and assessment frameworks such as Building for Life. These are of most benefit if used as early as possible in the evolution of schemes, and are particularly important for significant projects such as large scale housing and mixed use developments. In assessing applications, local planning authorities should have regard to the outcome from these processes, including any recommendations made by design review panels.
National Design Guide states:-
17 Local communities can play a vital role in achieving well-designed places and buildings and making sure there is a relationship between the built environment and quality of life. Communities can be involved in design processes through approaches such as co-design, design workshops and other engagement techniques, so that places and buildings reflect local community preferences, improve their quality of life and fit well into their surroundings. The design-related chapters of the planning practice guidance explain these and other design processes.
Design concept: The basic design ideas on which a proposal will be based, often expressed in a combination of words and visual material.
- In 2016 Look! St Albans was asked by the Council as landowner to host a Masterplanning design charrette for the entire City Centre Opportunity Site with the expectation that the landowners “would bring back individual planning applications for further work by the community on the design detail.” This the applicant chose not to pursue further.
- The recommendations for further testing beyond the Masterplanning stage are referenced in this planning application in the Design and Access Statement page 19 under “key charrette headings.” This ‘cherry picks’ some of the recommendations of the charrette report. The applicant fails to address how these recommendations were addressed in the progress of the design and where they can be found in this application. In addition the applicant fails to address all the recommendations headings, and also how these were addressed in the design process and where they can be found in this application.
- The full recommendations for further consideration, page 23 of the charrette report, are as follows:-
- Character and Appearance
- Landscape-led Placemaking
- Adaptable & delightful buildings and Spaces
- Materials, detail and finish
- Progressing the CCOS Placemaking initiative -Technical work
- Place quality ambitions & Construction cost per m2 assumptions
- Planning Application Content and Detail
- Team and commitment to Vision and Ambition
The last point is demonstrably lacking in this planning application.
The way some of these recommendations are addressed in the Design and Access Statement indicates to usa clear lack of understanding of how to use the Masterplanning charrette process and conclusions. To quote from the report (which the applicant commissioned in addition to the charrette outcome):- “A design charrette is a fast paced process with the ability to develop, explore and assess design ideas and concepts from a range of perspectives and work through complexities collectively. Unearthing and then addressing detailed technical questions during a charrette without having the necessary detailed studies to hand, highlights some of the limitations. Working with highly experienced facilitators with considerable technical expertise and a broad range of local stakeholders is one way of mitigating some of these limitations, however, design charrette design concepts need to be further tested through detailed technical studies.” The applicant has failed to give anything but a cursory mention to these recommendations, nor has it given any details of how they were incorporated in the plans.
- The applicant held a Community Design Review in January 2019. The resulting recommendations are not set out in the Statement of Community Engagement for this application. It is therefore impossible to know whether they influenced this application.
- The condemnation by the community of the previous planning application and its subsequent withdrawal were due in no small part to the disregard of the recommendations that came out of the earlier community engagement, thereby engendering a lack of trust between Council and community.
- The Statement of Community Involvement states that the work which the applicant undertook prior to the competition does inform this planning application, but is misleading. See page 13 of part 1 of the Design and Access Statement.
A ‘Design and Access Statement can aid decision-making by enabling local planning authorities and third parties to better understand the analysis that has underpinned the design of a development proposal.’ The applicant has failed to give sufficient information in this document to third parties, such as the local community to see if, where and how their work has been incorporated into the plans. It is deeply disappointing that all the hard work, and indeed labour of love of the community, has been brushed aside by the landowner and its development team.
It remains to be seen what the final form is of any new legislation is, but it is quite possible that by the time a planning application for CCOS North is submitted, it will be necessary to comply with the community engagement – not just community consultation – requirements that will be imposed by both Building Better, Building Beautiful and Building for the Future. It will be a great pity, affecting a prime area of central St Albans to its detriment for decades to come, if the two separate parts, CCOS South and North, are not designed using similar processes, one community-led incorporating the community’s own design codes, and the other with next to no community involvement. The outcomes are quite likely to be very different.”
Officers of Look! St Albans Our Community Voice on Design
Vanessa Gregory Chair
Mel Hilbrown Vice Chair
Chris Debenham Treasurer
James Gregory Secretary
After several weeks of quite intense work, our new website was recently revealed to the world.
Regular visitors to our pages will know that our previous website had seen better days and was looking a bit tired.
We wanted our new website to be friendly, distinctive and bold. Above all, it needed to improve the online experience for our many visitors.
Not only are we very pleased with our new LOOK!, but we have gained considerably more functionality in the upgrade and hope to build on this in the coming months.
Thank you Tim from Tiago Business Systems Ltd for all your hard work. We think it looks great!
We hope that you like the site as much as we do.
On the 11th June, before the Overview and Scrutiny Meeting started, Vanessa Gregory, Chair of LOOK! St Albans, replied to Robert Donald within 30 minutes of his email arriving……
Thank you for your kind email and offer of a meeting with LOOK! colleagues from the Reps Group (who deal with the day to day running of the community led group) and also representatives from those who took part in the original masterplanning charrette 2016.
As you know Look! St Albans is merely the conduit to enable the community to express their views in a structured externally facilitated manner, taking into account economic viability as well as a raft of other issues including design, sustainability, adaptability and local and national planning policy, to reach a consensus which is expressed in the charrette output/report. Some of these processes we discussed in our January meeting. None of Team Look! can or does speak on behalf of anyone else.
166 different people at least took part in the original charrette and gave well in excess of 1,000 hours of their time, freely. Of course there may well be more members of the community that would want to take part today.
Should it be your will that the community are involved in helping the architects chosen to shape their concept into a design for the purpose of a planning application that the community had a hand in, supported or felt that process had been achieved transparently through the process we use, then of course we are open to discussions.
Do recall that MoSTA only received 2 objections at the planning application stage. Look! still receives compliments (though somewhat undeserved) from local people that the development ‘feels St Albans’. I say underserved as they, the community helped to shape it.
As you and I both know we have a varied wealth of expertise, local knowledge and committed residents of all generations in St Albans district who have demonstrated there is willingness, at the masterplan stage, to commit considerable time to achieve a good outcome for this and future generations. I see no reason why that cannot be achieved again if there is a willingness on all sides.
PS As there is an Overview Meeting this evening which will discuss CCOS south I am forwarding this email to the Chair.
Dear Councillor Donald and Tony,
I hope you are both well.
I have thought long and hard about writing this open letter after listening to what people have communicated to me through Look! St Albans about the competition.
I have copied in the leaders of other political parties for the sake of transparency. As I said at the recent Planning Overview and Scrutiny Committee what I say I say as a critical friend to the council.
Meeting in January
- Firstly thank you for meeting us and giving so generously of your time on the 12th February where, as Mel Hilbrown said in his letter in the Herts Ad we were pleased to put right “a lot of misapprehension about what Look! St Albans is, what it is trying to achieve, and what its involvement in the project has been.” Including a suggestion we had held secret meetings with BDP to shape the design of the scheme prior to May last year. To make it abundantly clear, we did not.
- We now know that indeed the Civic Society committee did have meetings with the architects only for another committee within the Civic Society to reject it after the planning application had been submitted.
- It was unfortunate that our meeting with you came too late for us, as you already had the designs back from the architect to obtain what we had asked for at the cabinet meeting in January. We had requested for the community co-authored design codes to be included in the brief for the architects.
- However as Mel said in his letter we encouraged people to take part in the competition, but “Look! would strongly urge the council to return to meaningful community engagement for the development of the CCOS site.” That remains the view of many of those who support Look!
CCOS South Decision at Cabinet
- At the recent cabinet meeting, based on the papers available at the time, the cabinet agreed to appoint the successful architectural company from the design competition for CCOS South. It was revealed at the meeting the cost of the project was going to be between £60.1m and £68m.
- Therefore as the decision has been taken I or Look! St Albans supporters cannot be criticised for trying to undermine that process.
Comments and Questions of the Design Competition
- Working with The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community in 2012 the community learned how important it was to reach as wide a cross section of the community, by giving the community plenty of notice of the engagement, to be as transparent about the process as possible and keep good records of the outcome.
- As many will know we did write to our supporters, unasked, ahead of the start of the competition on Saturday 29th February, before there was even a council press release on the council website. This appeared on the first day of the competition going live on Monday 2nd March.
- Unfortunately for this most important site no forward publicity was available. The first ‘road show’ took place on the Tuesday before the advert appeared in the Herts Ad on the following Thursday, when many would first become aware of it.
- Were records kept of how many people attended the various displays of the plans? These would be helpful to record in your planning application. Were any comments recorded? Again these would be useful in demonstrating your community involvement.
- I understand no voting took place at these events. People could only vote online.
- With regard to the online web page I did inform the council team, as soon as I was made aware, that the drawings and the numbering on two of the designs did not match and was informed that the issue was rectified within a day. This unfortunate mix up could have confused early voters.
- It was extremely unfortunate that as the competition progressed people were becoming more and more distracted by the developing national emergency of the Covid19 pandemic and I suspect many who would have voted didn’t. The planned public meeting had to be sadly hastily cancelled. One colleague has commented as to why the presentations by the architects were not available in a video format, as these might have been easier for the layman to have understood. In view of the rapidly worsening national situation would it not have been sensible to extend the consultation at the very least? This would have given time to the architects to have made such videos.
- We now know that there were 604 visits to the website but only 429 voted. That means 28% of those who viewed the plans for one reason or another did not vote. As Mel said in his letter he hoped that people could reject any of the plans if they wanted to. This unfortunately was not an option for those who took part in the online survey. The online survey disadvantaged those who do not have access to the internet, but also gave the potential for abuse. Although voting was limited to one ISP many have access to multiple devices and therefore could have easily voted more than once.
- Why were the public not advised until after the event that their votes counted for only 50% of the result? It is very unclear how the other 50% was arrived at and by whom. Though you did say in the press release that other factors would be taken into consideration. Nonetheless the sheer amount of other factors had the potential to distort the outcome of the public vote.
- I suggest all the comments from the survey monkey should be transcribed and available for all to see and form part of your planning application, not just a couple as a flavour.
- Unfortunately this and other aspects will always cloud the outcome of the competition for this multimillion pound scheme, together with the lack of transparency on any aspect of the brief save that of what the Civic Society wrote in the Herts Ad on March 12th. Copy attached.
Selection of Architects
- Indeed we, the public, have no idea of the process for the selection of the three architectural firms. I am somewhat surprised that the Civic Society which boasts of having several architects amongst their membership that they did not recommend to the council using RIBA practices. As they say on their website “Our long experience in managing design competitions will ensure your competition is managed to best practice standards to fulfil your requirements and attract high quality design responses. It will send a clear signal to contestants (and I might add residents) that you have a commitment to design excellence, fairness and impartiality.”
- I do worry that the course you have undertaken does go against the prevailing wind in planning guidance and legislation as indicated in our meeting. Last October, in the government’s guidance to be read in conjunction with the NPPF Look! St Albans methodology is being encouraged and embraced. However as you have indicated to us at our meeting this is not your preferred method.
- As the Masterplanning charrette Look! St Albans hosted has been disparaged from within the administration, not, as you pointed out personally by you, for which we are indeed grateful, we do not therefore expect to see any reference to this in the new planning application. To do so, we feel would be inconsistent and confusing to say the least for the community.
- I do hope that now we have finally been able to meet, you now know Look! are sincere in wishing to work in collaboration with the council and all political parties. After all we do share the same desire to do what is best for St Albans district now and that our generation leaves a worthy legacy for the future.
- I and Look! St Albans are anxious not to be, or be seen as in some ways rival community groups with the Civic Society. It would be undignified and undermine our ethos, aims and objectives. Each has its remit and work in a totally different way. We, Look! are community led, we never claim to speak on behalf of others (the Reps Group is there to see to the day to day running of the group) and the Civic Society are committee (or perhaps better expressed as committees) led which speak on behalf of their memberships. As Mel Hilbrown, Vice Chair of Look! has said, the Civic Society has a voice that should rightfully be heard, but it is not the only voice in St Albans. Indeed in today’s world through many mediums community members are well able to express their views, what we aim to do is harness these into a structured informed and collaborative method for the purposes of community engagement on matters pertaining to planning.
- I hope I have given some useful suggestions, as well as I hope some constructive criticism, and indeed food for thought. Especially as you have indicated this is your intention to emulate this for CCOS north.
Chair Look! St Albans
PS For Clarification and Transparency As this issue seems to be a persistent area for speculation, re the (nationally and regionally recognised as planning in excellence by the Royal Town Planning Institute) CCOS masterplanning charrette, I approached The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community (not to be confused with The Princes Trust) in the first instance after being requested to host the charrette by the then partnership to be facilitators for this charrette. They have led and been involved in community engagement for in excess of 25 years and have a wealth of experience which they pass on to each community they work with. The reason being I well understood beforehand how contentious anything to do with CCOS could be. For operational reasons I believe they could not become involved at that level, but did recommend Angela Koch of ImaginePlaces to be lead facilitator. Some may recall The Foundation did support the community at the ‘scene setting’ session but considered, as it was being well run, it did not see the need to support at all four elements of the charrette. I trust this issue can now be put to bed once and for all. Together with the grossly inaccurate and derogatory term that it is ‘design by committee’.
A PDF of this document can be found HERE
Our Council has called on 3 architects to come up with new designs for the rejected planning application for the City Centre Opportunity Site (CCOS) South and we expect these to be put to a community vote early next month. LOOK! St Albans would encourage everybody to go along and make sure your views are heard. We sincerely hope that a good design, acceptable to the community, will emerge. LOOK! St Albans was set up solely to get development in the City Centre of which we could be proud for generations, and to do this by involving the community in the design process from the beginning, rather than through the discredited ‘public consultation’ process, with which we are all familiar (The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission last year reported research on this topic that showed only 2% of respondents trusted developers, and only 7% local authorities). But hopefully you will also have the opportunity to reject all three if none is acceptable! LOOK! itself as a body will not support or reject any design, as our only remit is to fight for full community engagement in planning (although individually we will give our personal views).
LOOK! worked with the community to produce draft design codes for our City Centre in 2012, and to produce a masterplan for the CCOS site in 2016. But, unfortunately, that was Look!’s last involvement as a body. The previous administration decided not to continue to the next detailed stage with community engagement that worked so well on Oak Tree Gardens, and instead briefed an architectural practice and put their plans to a Community Design Review. LOOK! did NOT host this, although many of us attended as individuals, and were saddened to see especially that the design had failed to be inspired by the Masterplan design charrette of 2016, and was certainly not landscape-led. As revealed at the recent Council Audit Committee, the St Albans Civic Society helped amend the plans before the planning application was submitted in August last year, then joined many others in rejecting it.
The new administration has now taken a different approach, using a suggestion from the Civic Society to hold a design competition, and it is the outcome of this that will be put to public vote. We hope for a good outcome, but are concerned that the recommendations created by the community from the masterplan and the design codes, which were developed to reflect the nature of St Albans, have been ignored, and that what we have is a ‘scatter-gun’ approach in the hope that something satisfactory will emerge.
At a recent meeting with Cllr Robert Donald, I was surprised to find a lot of misapprehension about what LOOK! St Albans is, what it is trying to achieve, and what its involvement in the project has been. I restate here that LOOK! St Albans’ sole object is to provide the opportunity for the community to actively work with developers, landowners and other stakeholders to produce feasible and well-designed developments that the community can love. We will not comment on anything else except as individuals, and in our processes every individual voice is equal, whether expert or interested unqualified resident.
LOOK! would strongly urge the Council to return to meaningful community engagement for the development of the CCOS site, or, at the very least, to ensure that the outcomes of all previous community engagement are actually built upon rather than ignored. It was suggested at the recent Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting that the cost of going out to design competition and subsequent new planning application would cost us around £1m. As our Chair said at that meeting, quoting the National Design Guide issued last October: “ Local communities can play a vital role in achieving well-designed places….Communities can be involved in design processes through approaches such as co-design, design workshops and other engagement techniques, so that places and buildings reflect local preferences, improve the quality of life and fit well into their surroundings.” And, she added, “The fundamental principle of community engagement is to carry it on throughout the process … to build the basis of support for a scheme”.
It was with deep regret that Look! St Albans’ officers felt they had no choice but to make such a public clarification of matters surrounding the public Masterplanning Charrette held in September 2016. We firmly believe in collaboration not confrontation.
For several months our supporters and indeed other members of Team LOOK! have been contacting us with their deep concerns about misinformation that was in circulation.
We have been asking for a meeting with St Albans District Council since September and unfortunately to date we have not been able to secure this. We sincerely hope our desire for a meeting will be accommodated soon.
As Mel Hilbrown states “LOOK! St Albans as a body will express no views on any design; we support only what an actively engaged community designs for itself, and promote this charrette process. We continue to believe that this is the best way of delivering both acceptable and viable development that works for both communities and developers.”