Planning row over St Albans shopfront

AN INDEPENDENT retailer has blasted St Albans district council for failing to support new businesses after her plans to revive an empty unit in the city centre hit the “brick wall of bureaucracy”.

Jane Hartley is hoping to open a new business on George Street, where four units are currently empty, but has been told she must apply for “listed building consent” to change the colour of the shop’s frontage.

Jane says she fully understands the need to apply for consent given the building’s Grade II listed status. But she claims the council has been unhelpful, negative and inflexible as she has attempted to navigate the tricky application process.

The businesswoman says the onerous process of trying to apply has been the most time-consuming element she has encountered since setting up the business.

She said: “I’m about to sign a 10-year lease for this property and the council will give me no guidance on whether my application to change the colour would be successful. They won’t even meet me at the site to discuss it. This would enable them to see the colours I’m suggesting better and make an ‘in principal’ decision.

“They’ve been wholly unhelpful and negative. I don’t have the resources, time and so on of a large chain.

“I’m taking a risk and making a huge commitment to bring business to a premises that has been empty for over a year. At the very least, I would expect the council to applaud me for my efforts. Instead I’m directed to their unhelpful website.”

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Jane will now have to seek the advice of experts, at further cost to her. She added: “I don’t want to make any structural changes to the building. I just want to know if I can paint it and put a sign outside. The council’s attitude seems to be: ‘why bother?’”

Heather Cheesbrough, head of planning at St Albans council, said: “The council is extremely keen to help businesses set up in the city and we are happy to provide them with support and advice on all planning and conservation matters. George Street is located in the conservation area and is one of the most historic roads in the city.

“Many of the buildings located here are Grade II listed and their character is protected by law. We have a duty to preserve and enhance the character of the conservation area and the significance of our listed buildings. Each application is assessed with these responsibilities in mind.”

She explained that changes inside and out, including paint colour, required listing building consent. Any outdoor signs would also need advertisement consent.

Ms Cheesbrough added: We have given informal written advice and guidance on possible options in response to an enquiry about changing the exterior paint colour and creating new signage.

“We are keen to progress this matter and are happy to provide additional advice.”

No application has been lodged with the council, therefore no formal decision can be made. Ms Cheesbrough said the planning team’s knowledge of the building and good photographic information meant no site visit was needed.