Fears St Albans Cathedral visitor centre could be rejected by council

St Albans Cathedral - a popular filming location

St Albans Cathedral - a popular filming location - Credit: Archant

St Albans Cathedral’s prayers for an ambitious new visitor centre to boost knowledge of Britain’s first martyr Alban - as well as its coffers - may not be answered.

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Jeffrey John

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Jeffrey John - Credit: supplied

There are fears that a proposal to make the story of Alban better known via a multi-million-pound visitor centre at the popular, and historic landmark could be rejected by the council.

St Albans Cathedral wants to demolish its slype, kitchen, bin store and vestry to make way for the construction of a single storey welcome and visitor centre.

The Heritage Lottery Fund project aims to broaden knowledge of the story of Alban and, in conjunction with the new St Albans museum project incorporating the Town Hall, to increase visitor numbers to the city and the iconic church.

The Cathedral believes the Welcome Centre would help to drive up the local visitor economy, and to make it financially sustainable by increased visitor donations – the church does not charge for entry.

But planning officers at the district council have recommended that councillors refuse the scheme when they meet to discuss it at a planning referrals committee meeting on Monday (11).

Their suggested rejection has been met with disappointment by the Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev Jeffrey John.

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He told the Herts Advertiser: “I am surprised and disappointed that local officials have adopted this position without negotiation and so late in the day, when it threatens to derail the whole project.”

Last Monday (27), six days after the statutory deadline for a planning response and two weeks before the committee meeting, officers requested major changes to the design, which would significantly reduce the available space in the Welcome Centre and, the Cathedral believes, compromise the location for new and accessible toilets.

The clergyman said of the proposed rejection: “This is not typical of the support we usually receive from the council. I very much hope that, despite this recommendation, our councillors will have the wisdom to support this application.”

The new centre is part of the Cathedral’s application to the Heritage Lottery Fund and planning approval is the final step to unlock £4 million of its funding, plus £3 million of match funding pledged to the church by over 1,000 local people and trusts.

However, planning officers say it should be turned down because they are unhappy with the “disjointed appearance of the differing heights of sections of the Welcome Centre”.

They also state the development “would result in harm to the significance of the Grade I listed building of the Cathedral and Chapter House” and warned its proposed location between them, within Sumpter Yard, would remove the existing visual separation between those two structures.

During public consultation on the scheme the council was told by respondents that the “Cathedral badly needs to be updated”, that the centre would bring in additional tourists, and “enhance understanding of the story of Alban”.

Historic England raised no objections, but warned its “impact would be considerable”.

The overall aim of the project is to bring the story of St Alban to a wider audience and close a gap in the nation’s understanding of the origins of Christianity in Britain, along with increasing visitor numbers.