Hotel on former St Albans BHS site given green light

The BHS site on St Peter's Street. Picture: Danny Loo.

The BHS site on St Peter's Street. Picture: Danny Loo. - Credit: Archant

A five-storey hotel on the former BHS site has been given the go-ahead despite being recommended for refusal.

Developers Reef Estates received planning permission to build an 130-bed hotel on St Peter’s Street at a Planning Referrals Committee on Monday.

St Albans district council (SADC) officers had advised councillors to refuse the application because they believed it would detrimentally impact the historic skyline in a Building Height Control Area and reduce retail opportunities, detracting from the viability of the city centre.

There was also a late representation from SADC parking officers, warning car spaces are already limited surrounding the site.

This is all despite vocal support for the scheme from St Albans Business Improvement District (BID), St Albans Civic Society, and a former Chamber of Commerce director.

Councillors also almost unanimously disagreed with officers, granting the application nine votes to zero, with one abstention.

Speaking in support of the proposal, SADC portfolio holder for sports and culture, Cllr Annie Brewster, described the vacant site as the “most hideous” in St Albans.

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She said: “I think all share the officer’s concerns over any loss of retail space - we face very challenging times. “However section seven of the NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework] encourage us to seek to ensure the vitality of town centres, placing significant weight on the need to support economic growth and productivity, taking into account both local business needs and wider opportunities for development.”

The 0.14 hectare site, which sits between The Works and an alley to Drovers Way, has lain empty since BHS went into administration in 2016.

Fifty per cent of the ground floor frontage has been reserved for retail space.

Cllr Eileen Harris said the debate was “nonsense”, and the grounds for refusal were “not reasonable, in all the circumstances, to get rid of the ugliest building in town which has been standing derelict for so long”.

However, chairman of the committee, Cllr Jock Wright, was more reserved, warning that approving it could “rubbish” policies included in the emerging draft Local Plan.

He said: “I think it’s fairly safe to say that I don’t think any members here are against economic regeneration and bringing the site back into use.

“I think that would be seen as a very strong positive but it’s also fair to say that we would not undertake that at any cost and actually there has to be a balance, of course, when we develop.”

There were 92 expressions of support for the scheme submitted to SADC.

Speaking after the meeting, president of the St Albans Chamber of Commerce, Alastair Woodgate, said: “I’m pleased that, in going against their officers’ recommendation to refuse the BHS scheme and grant permission, members acknowledge the changing nature of city centres and have seen that the merits of this scheme outweigh any potential concerns.

“This is a big boost to the visitor economy.”

This application was brought to the committee in July but deferred so councillors could assess the skyline for themselves.

St Albans Civic Society chairman, Tim Boatswain, added: “We are very pleased that the council have made a decision and we do believe that the quality of the hotel will enhance St Peter’s Street and will bring new vitality as well as new jobs to that part of the city.

“It’s obviously disappointing for the officers when they recommend refusal and it is approved, but I think they were misguided on both points.

“They were incorrect to say it would spoil the view and they were incorrect that we need more retail in a place where retail is suffering so much and that building has remained unoccupied.”

He said the society are celebrating the decision.

Reef Estates development director, Will Rohleder, said: “Our plans will provide a much needed hotel that will help meet the city’s ambitions to increase tourism and will activate a street scene that has been vacant for over two years.

“The redevelopment will help regenerate and revitalise St Peter’s Street adding to the vibrancy of the city centre.

“We look forward to starting the construction phase as soon as possible.”