What does 2021 mean for the St Albans district?
- Credit: Chris White
In the wake of the pandemic, with revenues dramatically affected and unexpected pressures to maintain services, the district council is entering 2021 from a difficult position.
Council leader Chris White did not sugar-coat their predicament: “Finances are not in a happy place so we are having to look at some unpleasant-looking cuts and savings, new sources of revenue and so forth. “We are not in the same position as some councils who are in real difficulty. I’ve been giving support to one council in the country - which I’m not allowed to name - and they are going to run out of reserves before March as they are very dependent on the tourism industry in a way we are not.
“We are not in that position - we are in the middle somewhere, along with all the rest - with not many prospects in terms of subsidiary from government, and sooner or later there is going to be a reckoning.”
In the light of this situation, SADC has been forced to carry out reorganisations, look at how they do business, and review the salaries of senior staff.
“This should save a substantial amount and also make for a better council.
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“It’s also forced us to stop a sort of Fortress St Albans approach,” he said, referring to the way SADC largely operated in isolation prior to the pandemic.
“We are doing more shared services with other councils so we are talking to Watford and Three Rivers and not ruling out Dacorum. A lot of the functions in this building [the civic centre] are not specific to St Albans.
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“Planning applications can be done by anybody with the skills; legal, finance - all of these are up-for-grabs in terms of working more efficiently with other districts.
“And that’s good too. We have been a bit slow in terms of joining up with what the other councils are doing, but you can always do better.
“What people want are services which are locally accountable, both in terms of political accountability and the day today. People aren’t interested in the back office - they aren’t interested in how Sainsbury’s back office works so why would they be interested in the council.”
However, with mass vaccination rolling out nationwide, he is cautiously optimistic for the district’s recovery in the months ahead, and preparing for a future after the pandemic.
“I think post-Covid could be fabulous for both St Albans and Harpenden because people have realised you don’t have to get on a train to London in order to send emails to the person sitting next to you. It’s a waste of three hours of your day, you’re absolutely knackered and you come home in the evening and want to watch telly. If you’re working here just three days a week, some of those evenings you’ll be finishing at six and not feeling absolutely whacked, and you’ll want to go out. The future, despite the quite depressing news at the moment for hospitality, is absolutely great.
“It’s a case of weathering the storm, which to some degree we can do with the latest bit of funding.
“People who used to do their dry cleaning in London are now doing it locally. If they want to try on clothes they’ll do it in a local shop. It’s not my pipe dream, I’m seeing that from commentators, and speaking to the management of the Maltings for example, they’re feeling positive about the future. The footfall recovery in the summer was quite extraordinary, but it was very rapid, and of course there’s pent-up demand.
“So there are potentially good times ahead, but we need to rise to that.
“Retail’s a funny one because of the internet. I think your Shop Local campaign is terrific in terms of reminding people there are other alternatives.
“Hospitality I think is more likely to develop. There are lots of gaps, even in the good times, for example I think a Lebanese place would go down a storm. There are lots and lots of things which people want to do other than sitting around drinking, so I think we will have more hospitality here and in Harpenden.
“We want all of the events to come back. I think we were getting into the stride of them and BID will do more as well. The market offering is stronger today than it was a year ago, and with the exception of Hitchin there’s nowhere else in Hertfordshire like it.
“Hopefully in 12 months time we will be back to fully normal, and can then start rebuilding, but I do hope we can run the street events in the summer like we used to.”