How district is planning for recovery in a post-Covid world

St Peter's Street, St Albans city centre.

There are many opportunities to improve St Albans city centre in the wake of the pandemic. - Credit: Archant

The St Albans district will be seizing the opportunity of a post-Covid world to build back better for the future.

That is the pledge of the council's portfolio holder for business, tourism and culture in the wake of a report warning that the pandemic has left the district in a vulnerable position for recovery.

Cllr Mandy McNeil said since last March SADC had been lobbied by various groups calling for action, including investment in regeneration, greening up the city, and creative flexible workplaces.

"Regeneration of our city centre is crucial to the recovery of our visitor economy, and key to this is our district’s independent hospitality and retail sector as well as our markets, festivals, art and multi-cultural offering. The combined spend on retail, food and drink was more than 60 per cent of total visitor expenditure.  People come to the district to eat, drink and shop, as well as enjoy our cultural and heritage offering and green spaces, and our indie businesses are a big attraction.

"We’d already lost a lot of office space to residential over the past few years, so our local and visitor economy has had to sustain our businesses for some years.

"With more people working from home versus commuting to London, there is more discretionary income available to be spent in our local economy. This will help to bolster our independent retail and hospitality businesses in the short term, while our visitor economy builds back up. Our residents are passionate about shopping locally in St Albans and Harpenden, it’s our community who have helped to keep many of our businesses going over the past year."

But it's not only the independents who have the opportunity to thrive, Phil Corrigan, manager of the Maltings Shopping Centre, said: "Clearly there will be some short-term pain, but the bigger picture is that there is a good deal of interest in new retailers who want to come to St Albans.”

St Peter's Street, St Albans city centre.

St Peter's Street, St Albans city centre. - Credit: Archant

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Mandy responded: "That’s because St Albans district is the complete package, we have so much to offer with assets including the Cathedral, our museums and markets, which will continue to attract footfall, once normal trading conditions return as they did when we reopened after the first lockdown in 2020.

"Several market traders told me that over the summer and autumn they were seeing an increase in both footfall and spend from residents who normally commuted to London but were now delighted to be able to spend their money locally."

Dave Worcester of The Lower Red Lion is optimistic: "Residents who have been stuck at home have money they are itching to spend, and there will be plenty of places to spend that money when businesses can reopen, including our much-loved pubs.”    

The pandemic has also not stopped new businesses from opening in the city centre.

Mandy said: "Since the first lockdown began we’ve seen three new retail businesses opening on George Street, new restaurants are currently being built out in Christopher Place, a new pub, The Quiet Man, is going to open on Chequers Street, and we have a waiting list for the charter market and the St Albans BID markets. "

Fewer commuters to London and demand for more flexible working space has been on the cards for some time, and there are already creative workspaces ready to benefit from this trend, with more opening up during the pandemic, the most recent being Pluto in Christopher Place.   

One shared workspace is Bubblehub, located in the old Pumphouse on Stonecross.

Co-owner Benn Latham said they are seeing an increase in enquiries: "Some residents have more of a choice as to where to work and are becoming more discerning as to what environment works for them. Others have found that home does not work and there is a necessity to find somewhere outside of the home. More than one of our users has shared that their only other option would have been to work in their cars!"

Mandy added: "Yes, there will be change, but we have a district full of creative entrepreneurs, ready to adapt. With more people working from home or in shared creative space, including our cafés and pubs, one day in the not too distant future, footfall will return – until then, let’s keep shopping locally, online or click and collect, to help our local businesses survive until then."