Year in Review: St Albans council leader reflects on 2021

St Albans district council leader Cllr Chris White offers a retrospective on a challenging year.

St Albans district council leader Cllr Chris White offers a retrospective on a challenging year. - Credit: SADC

As 2021 draws to a close, it’s hard to believe that we’ve now been living with COVID for almost two years – much of which has overlapped with my time spent leading the council, which has been Liberal Democrat-led since May 2019.   

Much like COVID continues to have an impact on people, economies and businesses, its impact on the council is still making itself felt and will do for some time. 

Most people will realise that the council must have taken a hit due to services such as parking and leisure centres being used much less frequently over lockdowns. What fewer realise is that these sources have to provide the majority of our council’s income, due to government insistence that district councils rely more on fees, charges and rents, and less on council tax. 

(Here’s another lesser-known fact: the district council receives just over 10% of your council tax – the lion’s share goes to the county council.)  

So one of the many ways in which we addressed this financial shortfall was by instigating the garden waste service charge. If we hadn’t introduced this, not only would your regular bin service be nowhere to be seen, but the council would by now have been bankrupt and potentially run by government commissioners. 

But obviously, this did not transpire, as there was a huge take-up of the garden waste service (and the uptick in flytipping predicted by Conservatives failed to appear). It’s reassuring to know that the residents of St Albans understood the logic behind the service – and gratifying to see the naysayers proved wrong. 

It’s these naysayers (who most commonly take the form of the main opposition) that have been another big sticking point of the past year. The behaviour from some Conservatives has been shocking at times – from completely false claims (a list of budget cuts I announced in February we would not be making appeared in Conservative literature in April as cuts we had decided to impose) to personal attacks on council officials. 

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Our approach has been to give it straight but not to respond to the tone – although we do have to correct false statements. 

That said, the tone has improved recently and I would hope, as no doubt residents do, that this will continue. I’m a strong believer that working cross-party can yield great results – that’s why almost immediately after gaining full control of the council, Liberal Democrats restructured it to become more democratic. Now, no individual councillor has full decision-making powers, and opposition councillors’ voices are heard more clearly.  

This year’s seen plenty of other triumphs for the council, too. To name but a few: we obtained planning permission for the city centre space next to the Alban Arena, now home to the burgeoning ‘CCOS South’ building, which will provide for commercial and residential tenants. We’ve opened the Eric Morecambe Centre and the (now award-winning) Harpenden Leisure Centre, both of which had been under threat because of poor financial planning by the previous administration.  

And we’re making good on both our promises to tackle the climate emergency and provide more homes for local people by offering more environmentally friendly housing. Huge progress has been made on the Ridgeview zero-carbon housing development in London Colney, which will provide both social and market-rent housing, while two new homes in Sopwell will be the first ever social houses in the district to be built with air source heat pumps. 

This time next year, CCOS South building will be complete, adding to an already thriving city centre that’ll also see new developments at the far end of St Peter’s Street to replace the worn-out buildings by Metro Bank, and a Charter Market expanding back to pre-COVID numbers of stalls. The Local Plan will be in draft form, showing that we are determined to respond radically to the climate crisis. And more units of zero carbon social housing will be coming on tap.  

Should we lose control of the administration in next year’s elections, I believe Liberal Democrats would still be proud of a strong legacy that put the focus on back on climate and moved away from expensive projects. But from conversations that I and my fellow councillors have on the doorsteps with residents, residents still appear to be very much on our side (although politicians’ predictions on elections are taken by the electorate with a pinch of salt – and rightly so!) 

And that’s good news for St Albans – because as we start to build back from the pandemic and continue to keep our eyes on the climate emergency, it’s vital that we don’t get stuck in our old ways and stuck in the past. Now more than ever, we must keep St Albans evolving, improving, and moving forwards. 

Finally, do I have a community champion? Yes: rather a lot given the impact of Covid. Anyone who works in the NHS, in social care, in blue light services. And the huge numbers of council officers who put in extra hours to help out with enforcement, with paying grants or helping volunteers. Heroes all.