Herts Ad Year in Review: Business rates, a climate emergency and a new MP for St Albans
PUBLISHED: 08:59 04 January 2020
As the end of the year approaches, it is time to look back on what has been a turbulent but vibrant 12 months in the district.
2019 began with runner Clare Wallis taking a well-deserved break, having spent 2018 undertaking the challenge of doing a different 'ultramarathon' each month, running a total of 1,500 miles.
This incredible feat raised £6,000, which went towards Harpenden toddler Isla Austin's experimental cancer treatment at New York's Sloan Kettering Memorial hospital. Clare said: "It is incredible what your body can do when you put your mind to it."
Meanwhile, the dramatic rise in business rates hit St Albans pubs hard. Pub landlords met with Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Robert Jenrick MP, and urged changes to business rates policy that wouldn't penalise those in areas with high property values. Currently, only those with a rateable value below £51,000 are eligible for any discount.
The district has seen an increase in violent crime recently. In January this year, a 15-year-old was sentenced to nine to 12 years for stabbing another teenager during GCSE celebrations in Verulamium Park the previous summer. Just weeks later, there was another stabbing in St Albans, after which the Chief Inspector urged parents to talk to their children about knife crime.
In February, the district held its inaugural Children's Mental Health Week, in recognition of the struggles that children and young people face today. St Albans Cathedral was lit up in orange to raise awareness in connection with the Herts Ad's It's OK To Say campaign.
Long-time volunteer Radio Verulam presenter, Danny Smith, was sacked for coming out in support of his colleague, who was told she was breaching internal rules for doing a radio show about Christianity without paying lip service to other faiths. He now presents The St Albans Podcast, supported by the Herts Ad.
March brought turmoil to the district's 10 and 11 year olds and stress to their parents, when 189 Year 6 pupils were not allocated a secondary school place. Melissa from Park Street, whose daughter was one of those affected, said: "To tell a child that they haven't got a school place has such a detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing."
St Albans residents got together this International Women's Day to address the issue of period poverty. A council staffer put out a box of sanitary products for those who need them in council offices, and pupils at Loreto College were encouraged to bring period products to school, which were then donated to homeless charities.
Lucy Daniells-Conroy, who led the project at Loreto, said: "The girls came up idea to raise awareness, to help people who need it and to take away the taboo of talking about period products."
At the same time, the town mourned the loss of former Saints player and Love Island contestant, Mike Thalassitis, who took his own life, aged 26. St Albans City FC played a tribute match in his memory.
Manager Ian Allinson said of Mike: "He was a great lad. He was very jovial and very funny. When it came to football he took it very seriously. He was a good player. There's not been one bad word about the boy."
As the end of the month approached, over 1,000 St Albans and Harpenden residents attended the historic People's Vote march in London, ahead of the original deadline for Britain to leave the EU. Chair of St Albans for Europe, Fiona McAndrew said "We had many newcomers joining us for the first time in their lives, all absolutely enraged by the government's Brexit chaos and very anxious about the current political climate."
In a protest against current business rates, The Boot and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pretended to have shut up shop on April Fool's Day. A sign outside The Boot read: "Pub closed due to unsustainable business rates."
West Herts patients are now able to receive IVF treatment on the NHS again, the practice having been discontinued in 2017 due to funding gaps. Aileen Feeney, co-chair of campaign group Fertility Fairness said: "The news offers a beacon of hope for the one in six couples in Herts Valleys who need medical help in order to become parents."
Anne Main angered constituents with a speech in Parliament in support of Theresa May's withdrawal agreement by implying she was: "not going to be cowed" by emails she received from Remain-voting constituents.
She later claimed the comment was not in reference to opposition to Brexit within the community, but her comments went viral on Twitter, with many arguing that MPs have a duty to represent the views of their constituents.
St Albans' homeless population suffered a blow when the council started to remove sleeping bags, torches and flasks from the streets without warning. Sarah Linney of St Albans Action for Homeless Friends said: "The people we have given heavy duty sleeping bags have had them taken away by the council."
A council spokesperson responded: "We try to be sensitive to the needs of people sleeping rough. That's not to say we won't move items if we feel there is a need to do so. We normally give a warning and will store items for a few days."
At the end of the month, St Albans Mayor, Cllr Rosemary Farmer, hosted a reception for seven Special Olympics gold medallists, who train in the area. Rosemary said the event was "One of the highlights of my year in office."
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In May, local council elections saw the Tories losing their majority on the St Albans district council for the first time in eight years. The Liberal Democrats became the biggest party on the council with 25 of the 57 seats, though no party holds an overall majority, and managed to unseat former Conservative council leader, Alec Campbell.
New council leader Chris White said the Lib Dems' main priorities would be reducing emissions and building more affordable housing.
It was announced in the same month that construction of Katherine Warington School in Harpenden was behind schedule, and would not be completed in time for the start of the school year. Pupils were bussed to Hatfield for the first weeks of school before the site officially opened on September 30.
In June, a man was convicted in St Albans Crown Court for the murder of drug dealer Ahsanullah Nawazai, stabbed to death in London Colney in November 2018. Anis Anderson was sentenced to life with a maximum of 24 years. His co-defendant Carla Callum was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter charges.
The renovation of St Albans City station began with plans to improve facilities and reduce congestion on the platforms at the busy train station. The project is expected to be completed in July 2020.
Founder of the Herts Ad's It's OK To Say campaign, Stacey Turner, climbed Kilimanjaro in July as part of her campaign promoting open discussion about mental health issues, and to raise money for Cancer Research UK. She made the seven-day journey up the mountain with the support of various Hertfordshire businesses, which supplied her with mountaineering equipment and helped her raise funds for the climb.
A historically hot summer coincided with two major fires in long-standing St Albans businesses. The Plough pub in Sleapshyde suffered a fire in early July. The pub had changed ownership the year before and had just undergone a major refurbishment. Firefighters from surrounding towns managed to contain the fire before the pub's 17th century ale house and its thatched roof were incinerated. The pub has since reopened but repairs cost thousands of pounds.
Not a week later, another inferno burned down Camp Fish and Chips, which has been in operation for nearly 100 years and, last year, served as the location for a Gucci TV advert starring Harry Styles.
Martin Chen, the owner, whose family home above the chip shop was also destroyed said: "We are devastated but we are doing everything we can to get our life back on track." The community rallied behind both businesses, including raising over £1000 to fund repairs of Camp Fish and Chips. Repairs are ongoing.
In a step forward in environmental awareness in the area, St Albans district council voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency. After 1,700 people signed a petition calling on the council to take action.
Catherine Ross, a trustee of Sustainable St Albans said "It was a brilliant result - and so positive that there was cross-party agreement in favour of declaring a climate emergency in our district". The council also voted for a 2030 net-zero emissions target, and to ban single use plastic from council offices.
In August, a man was charged with the murder of 71-year-old Christine Ford, who was found dead in her home in the sleepy village of Flamstead. 64-year-old Brian Coote remains in custody. He is yet to enter a plea but a provisional trial date has been set for January 27, 2020. In response to her death, Flamstead residents held a vigil for Christine and postponed their annual scarecrow festival.
The summer ended with a string of protests in St Albans. In late August, youth climate activists blocked High Street for four hours, calling for the council to take more action to take environmental issues. The following weekend, a 450-strong crowd, mostly comprised of pro-EU St Albans residents gathered outside the clock tower to protest Boris Johnson's prorogation of parliament.
In October, the city centre was filled with people for a slightly cheerier reason: the annual St Albans Feastival. The event showcased the district's thriving food and drink industry. Attendees were treated to takeaway foods from the best local chefs, as well as a range of artisanal cheeses, honeys and alcoholic beverages.
Crowds were enthralled by a son et lumière show titled Space Voyage, taking place at St Albans Cathedral this October, with intergalactic images projected onto the façade and various installations inside. A highlight was a Mass on the Moon event.
The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev Dr Jeffrey John said: "Cathedrals were built to give people a sense of awe and transcendence. So the cathedral is the perfect place for an installation like Space Voyage."
However, in November, the lights were snuffed out. A late-evening power outage in St Albans, Bricket Wood, London Colney and Sandridge caused chaos the next morning with the closure of the Hatfield Tunnel during rush hour, leading to traffic being diverted and causing significant congestion in the surrounding area.
A group of travellers was granted permission to stay living on Nuckies Farm, having fought for this for 19 years, after a planning inspector granted a change of use of land. The school-age children living on the site will now be able to continue to attend London Colney Primary School.
Developers have broken ground on a new rail freight terminal in Park Street to ensure that their planning permission will not expire while the conservation period continues. The terminal has been opposed by groups committed to protecting the Green Belt from development, who still hope the consultation on the St Albans Local Plan will result in the planned freight terminal being cancelled.
Finally, the General Election saw Daisy Cooper unseat Anne Main as Member of Parliament for St Albans - becoming the constituency's first Lib Dem MP after 14 years of a Conservative majority.
Daisy said: "I'm delighted to be St Albans' first ever Lib Dem MP and I'm raring to go."