Controversy haunts beginning of new Westminster Lodge development in St Albans

SEVERAL conditions attached to planning permission for the new Westminster Lodge in St Albans have been breached already according to local residents and campaigners against the scheme.

One of the conditions is that neither demolition nor any site works should begin until the frontage to the site has been enclosed by a continuous solid fence.

Another relates to the need to protect archaeological remains from damage or destruction and protect them physically from harm.

A third requires that no development should take place on the site fronting Holywell Hill until details of both hard and soft landscaping have been approved.

But campaigners say that they have all been breached and that with a scheme as controversial as the Westminster Lodge development which is publicly funded, total transparency is required on the discharge of all planning conditions.

Local lobbyist Vanessa Gregory maintained that the council had breached several of their own planning conditions and questioned, in particular, why they had not installed a continuous solid fence to encompass the site.

She pointed out that David Gilroy, fellow campaigner from the PoolTooSmall group which has been fighting for a larger pool in the new Westminster Lodge, had been able to walk about while demolition work was carried out on the old superintendent’s house.

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And she also called for reassurance that great care would be taken of hidden archaeological treasures so that none were lost through negligence or any other reason.

Mrs Gregory added: “Apart from anything else, what message does this send out to builders all over the district? Blatantly ignore planning conditions and get away with it? Or more likely do as we say not do as we do!”

A Holywell Hill resident, who did not wish to be named, has called on the council to revoke the planning permission it gave for its own development in the wake of the breaches.

He is particularly angry because 20 months ago he was made to pay hundreds of pounds, as a planning condition, for an archaeologist to photograph a garden wall that was being demolished in Sopwell Lane – a wall built about the same time as the superintendent’s house which has been demolished at Westminster Lodge.

He said that the archaeologist was supposed to look at every brick as it was taken out which would have cost thousands of pounds had she not settled on looking at a few token bricks which were clearly modern and alleged antiquities which were concrete blocks.

The resident said that the council now seemed to want to save money by not building a security fence around the new leisure centre site, even though it had to do so by law as a condition of its planning consent.

Describing the fence as temporary and with more holes in it than a Swiss cheese, he added: “Many of us are a bit strapped for cash as well and could well have done with a bit of restraint and proportionality from the planning department.

“What could be more sensible than having a proper fence keeping the children visiting the park from playing on a demolition site and what could be more idiotic than ordering us to have an archaeologist to examine the concrete blocks in our garden wall?”

Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s head of planning, commented: “Due to how the pre-commencement conditions have been interpreted in relation to site preparation works, there has been a minor technical breach of part of two of the planning conditions.”

She said they had been discussed and resolved between the developer – the council’s culture and community development department – and the planning authority.

She added: “The planning authority considers that no enforcement action is required as the work is now complete and it would be disproportionate to the scale of the breach. Health and safety requirements were observed during the demolition work.”