Ready for the Next Generation?

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”.

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