St Albans’ Batchwood blaze remains unsolved one year later

ONE year after a fire tore through Batchwood Golf and Tennis Centre, destroying it and the bowls pavilion, the police have admitted their investigation into its cause has reached a dead end.

And with no replacement sporting facility or even a planning application for its replacement submitted to St Albans district council (SADC), the local authority is feeling the heat from some disgruntled sportspeople.

Despite Herts police swiftly arresting four men on suspicion of arson shortly after the August 10 fire, they were later released on bail. No-one else has been arrested since.

Lib Dem leisure spokesman Cllr Anthony Rowlands has accused the Tory-led SADC of “dithering and delaying” the rebuild.

He said: “After an initial burst of activity, it appears that headway on rebuilding Batchwood has slowed to a crawl. The timescales are worryingly vague with completion at an unspecified date in the distant future.

“We have heard little from the police about their efforts to track down the culprits. Given the magnitude of the fire, residents deserve to be reassured that every effort is continuing to be made to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

A police spokeswoman admitted that despite an extensive investigation into the fire’s cause, “all lines of inquiry have so far been exhausted.

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“However, should any further information be received, we will of course fully investigate this.”

While the council has described the blaze as arson, the police said there was no connection between the fire and last year’s London riots although it happened during the same period.

Meanwhile, determined members of Batchwood bowls, tennis and golf clubs have set about, “getting the show back on”.

The golf course was reopened within days of the blaze.

Mandy Franks, who set up the tennis programme at Batchwood over 20 years ago, enlisted the help of high profile Judy Murray, mum of tennis star Andy, to help coach youngsters and promote the game.

Hundreds of people signed a Facebook page calling for the centre’s resurrection, including Rafael Nadal.

After the fire-ravaged remains of the facility were demolished by mid-October, a tennis “bubble” was put up to provide three indoor tennis courts.

But Batchwood Hall Bowls has not been so lucky.

A member, who did not want to be named, said that although the council returfed the fire and water-damaged green in October, “it has turned into a disaster”. He added: “We are not very happy about it.”

The new green, originally hailed as a premier rink in Herts, has thatch and disease problems and is “contaminated” with clumps of meadow grass.

The member said: “The bowling is not very good; it’s almost impossible, because it is too heavy to bowl on.”

Mike Wakely, portfolio holder for sports and leisure, said the green has been affected by the drought, subsequent hosepipe ban and recent heavy rain.

He said the council was trying to “speed up” construction of the new centre, but the biggest “bugbear” is that it was on Green Belt land and thus deemed inappropriate development.