St Albans business held back by 15cm

COMMERCIAL progress in the city is being hindered by “nit-picking bureaucracy” according to a St Albans businessman who is embroiled in a planning row over 15cm.

Christopher Wharton, who owns the jewellers on George Street, says the planning department needs a change of attitude if the demise of the shopping scene in the city centre is to be prevented.

Based at 1 George Street, the jeweller is poised to sign a 15-year lease for number 2 – the former La Senza – if he can create a passageway between the two buildings.

But his plans have stalled after the council said they would only allow a 75cm opening – not a 90cm as per the business’ original plan. To allow more, the council say, would damage the historic material of the Grade II listed building.

Mr Wharton said: “We’ve had several meetings with the planning officer and she said that the old original bricks were spoiled because of render previously applied on both sides. If the bricks are spoiled anyway, what difference can 15cm make?”

The jewellers, founded in 1947, cannot have two entrances open for security reasons. All of their customers would have to circulate through the opening.

Mr Wharton says a 75cm opening is “totally impractical” and “dangerous to wheelchair users who would not get through without skinning their knuckles”.

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He has now been advised to resubmit an application for the 90cm opening, which could take up to six weeks. The businessman fears this could mean losing the premises to other parties.

He said: “We fully understand the need for planning and conservation of these fine old buildings. However, all through the ages these shops have traded and developed to accommodate businesses until now, when it seems ‘commerce’ has become a dirty word, with every possible obstacle put in the way of progress.

“We see restaurants opening at a rate of knots, often taking the places of previous independent businesses, adding to our concerns over the commercial viability of St Albans as a shopping town.”

Mr Wharton is also concerned about wider implications for a town that was once regarded as a thriving shopping destination.

He added: “On a Monday or Tuesday, it is now normal to look out onto totally deserted streets. Very little is being done to promote the town to surrounding areas.

“Once you reach a tipping point of closures, many shoppers will choose to go to centres where they are assured of easy, reasonably priced parking and good shops with the variety we used to have here.

“When are our representatives going to come down from their high towers onto the streets of St Albans? Certainly the recession is also to blame but that’s all the more reason for them to redouble their efforts to help and support commerce, not hinder it at every turn.”

Heather Cheesbrough, head of planning at the council, said the building’s internal wall was made up of historic fabric which needed to be protected as much as possible, regardless of the state of the plaster work covering it.

She explained that an application for 750mm opening had been submitted after discussion and permission was granted.

Ms Cheesbrough said: “As a council we have a duty to preserve and enhance the character of the conservation area and the significance of our listed buildings.

“We are keen to support local businesses and work with them to help them adapt and develop their business premises, as we have done in this case.”

The head of planning pointed out that St Albans shop vacancy rate was lower than many other shopping destinations and that the council was working with retailers to attract shoppers to the city.