The Herts Ad Year in Review for 2016

Re-opening of Fontmell Close, St Alban's, AL3 5HU after repairs following a sinkhole.
Left to right

Re-opening of Fontmell Close, St Alban's, AL3 5HU after repairs following a sinkhole. Left to right: Mayor Frances Leonard cutting the ribbon with residents Ben Bagshaw and his son Finley Bagshaw 14 months old - Credit: Archant

With stories covering the likes of Bowie, Brexit, the BID, Butterfly World, The Brickyard and the Berlin Wall, it certainly hasn’t been a quiet year for the Herts Advertiser.

The Brickyard

The Brickyard - Credit: Archant

The campaign to resurrect popular tourist attraction Butterfly World rumbled throughout the year, with owners the Breheny Group insisting in January that they had no plans to put it on the market. They eventually confirmed they would definitely not resurrect the closed sanctuary in the autumn.

Probably one of the most inspirational stories of the year was that of little Gabriella Farrugia, who battled back after contracting a rare auto-immune disease to become a poster girl for Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the winner of the Herts Advertiser Community Awards Young Achiever and Maltings Community Hero accolades.

A tribute to pop star David Bowie played on an organ at St Albans Cathedral went viral online, attracting more than 3.2 million views. Scholar Nicholas Freestone’s rendition of hit single Life on Mars touched the singer’s fans across the world.

And it was a case of “ground control to Major Tim” as British astronaut Tim Peake spoke to pupils from Sandringham School via amateur radio from onboard the International Space Station.

St Albans MP Anne Main campaigning for 'Vote Leave' in St Albans

St Albans MP Anne Main campaigning for 'Vote Leave' in St Albans - Credit: Archant

The battle of The Brickyard dominated headlines throughout 2016, as owner James Hanning fought opposition from a small cabal of neighbours to close him down, including the imposition of new licence restrictions which forced him to close the bar’s garden area at 10pm.

An ambitious plan to create a Business Improvement District in St Albans city centre was unveiled at the beginning of the year, and was finally approved following a close-run vote in November.

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The site of Harpenden’s new secondary school was finally confirmed as agricultural land on the corner of Lower Luton Road and Common Lane in Batford, but as the year comes to a close there were signs it might not open until 2018.

Harpenden’s iconic water tower vanished from the skyline when it was demolished in February, and a scheme for a huge quarry near Smallford met with huge opposition from neighbouring residents.

Proud of Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School

Proud of Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School - Credit: Photo supplied

Govia Thameslink was named the worst train company in the country for overall satisfaction in the annual National Passenger Survey, and then ranked the worst train service in the UK in a survey by Which? The service was blighted by cancelled and delayed trains throughout 2016, despite promises of an improved service following the introduction of new 12-carriage vehicles.

A hero binman prevented a massive fire in the heart of St Albans after spotting flames leaping through a window above the Oxfam charity shop in Chequer Street. But although firefighters were called to tackle the blaze, thousands of pounds worth of stock was damaged and the shop remained closed for months.

The Herts Advertiser launched our Something to Talk About… campaign in March, joining forces with the OLLIE (One Life Lost Is Enough) Foundation to raise awareness of teenage suicide. Our work with father Stuart Falconer, whose 15-year-old son Morgan took his own life, continued throughout the year.

Despite five years of hard graft and a £2million bill, Harperbury Free School was officially scrapped in March.

Firefighters tackling the blaze at the Oxfam charity store in Chequer Street, St Albans. Photo court

Firefighters tackling the blaze at the Oxfam charity store in Chequer Street, St Albans. Photo courtesy of @Redbournfire/Twitter - Credit: @Redbournfire/Twitter

The Strategic Local Plan, the district council’s draft planning blueprint for future development, went out for consultation at the start of the year, and was swiftly followed by demands from Luton and Dacorum councils to meet their own housing needs.

All three local MPs – Anne Main, Peter Lilley and Oliver Dowden – supported controversial cuts to disability benefits forced through Parliament in March, and it was revealed that St Albans Christmas Market had lost nearly £200,000 during its first three years.

North Pole trekker Ed Suttie completed his Arctic adventure in April, having raised more than £30,000 for charities including Rennie Grove Hospice and Earthworks, despite the final leg of his mission being delayed by cracked ice.

The Herts Ad picked up the campaign baton again in April to raise awareness of noise from low-flying planes using Luton Airport, and our in-depth investigations into the problem continued throughout the year, with flight moving maps showing the concentration of planes flying over urban areas of St Albans.

Ed Suttie's mission to the North Pole

Ed Suttie's mission to the North Pole - Credit: Archant

Customers and staff at the Chequers Inn in Redbourn were left stunned when Hollywood movie star Matt Damon popped in for a pint after a stint filming in London, a new vision was unveiled for the complete transformation of the Civic Centre site in the centre of St Albans, and an inspired exhibition by Oaklands College art, fashion and design students marked 160 years of the Herts Ad at St Albans Cathedral.

Dead birds seen floating on Verulamium Lake were the trigger for another summer of polluted water and no action to clean it up from the district council, despite a barrage of complaints from residents.

Shock plans to build 1,130 homes, a primary school and retirement village in 56 hectares of Green Belt land between St Albans, Wheathampstead and Welwyn Garden City were included in the draft Local Plan of Welwyn Hatfield borough council.

The EU Referendum dominated the district in June, with campaigners from both sides out in force in the run-up to the final vote. But after 62.7 per cent of the St Albans electorate voting to remain, Eurosceptic MPs Anne Main and Peter Lilley faced calls to resign for failing to represent their constituents.

Water tower which is in the process of being demolished

Water tower which is in the process of being demolished - Credit: Archant

The second and final St Albans Literary Festival took place in July, run entirely by volunteers with the support of the Herts Advertiser, with authors involved including Frank Gardner, Alison Weir, Been Aaronovitch and Anthony Lester QC.

A massive housing scheme was mooted as an alternative use for land in Park Street earmarked for a rail freight depot, with developers looking to create a garden village of 2,000 homes. This was swiftly followed by another scheme from a different company, but the district council subsequently scuppered the proposals by refusing to take the land out of the Green Belt.

The Herts Ad helped push through proposals for a new visitor centre at St Albans Cathedral after council planning officers recommended rejecting the scheme, and we reported how the short-lived Pokémon Go craze swept through the district.

Nicholas Breakspear School celebrated a record-breaking turnaround in its Ofsted rating, going from special measures to being graded as good in less than three years.


Gabriella - Credit: Archant

The closure of the city’s tourist information centre left visitors to St Albans lost and bewildered throughout the second half of the year, with a temporary facility in the Alban Arena condemned as a “step backwards” by the Civic Society.

The district council also came under fire for allowing a priceless 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic to be scarred by carpet glue, with the clean-up estimated at a cost of £50,000. Meanwhile, Batchwood Hall put in controversial plans to install sections of the Berlin Wall in the nightclub’s barbecue area, a scheme which was subsequently refused.

A memorial to beloved accordion player Paddy Delaney was installed in St Peter’s Street in August following a crowdfunding campaign, firebugs cost farmers thousands of pounds after targeting hay bales in a spate of arson attacks, and Keech Hospice played host to William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Further concerns surrounding the district’s Strategic Local Plan were revealed in September, when the planning inspectorate warned the document was not up to scratch, and developers behind the loathed rail freight depot entered negotiations to purchase the site from the county council.

Matt Damon with Ray Smyth of Redbourn Cricket Club - Picture courtesy of Ray Smyth

Matt Damon with Ray Smyth of Redbourn Cricket Club - Picture courtesy of Ray Smyth - Credit: Archant

Time was finally called on The Brickyard after owner James Hanning closed the venue following months of complaints from a handful of neighbours. To date the building remains boarded up and unused.

A military memorabilia collector whose home was raided by police in 2014 escaped a jail sentence for storing munitions. Alan Tissington had converted a small garage at his home into a museum displaying First and Second World War gas masks, rifles, military uniforms and flags.

The Herts Ad marked the anniversary of the St Albans sinkhole in October, just a few weeks before Fontmell Close was officially reopened by the Mayor. Elsewhere, we reported on a spate of sightings of a suspected black panther in countryside around the district.

Funding was finally approved for Harpenden’s new secondary school, but no sooner had the opening date of September 2018 been confirmed than it was revealed the scheme could be postponed until at least the following year.

Local musicians were left fuming after they were unceremoniously dumped from the St Albans Christmas Market by the district council, and the Herts Ad revealed how businesses were migrating out of the city due to a dwindling amount of office space.

The city centre’s BID proposal scraped through by five votes in November, despite concerns that it would be a form of ‘stealth tax’ for local firms. Meanwhile, representatives from St Albans Businesses Community networking group stripped off to bare all on a charity Christmas card.

What may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the Strategic Local plan came in December, when a planning inspector effectively rejected the document.

The district council was accused of being vague and failing to cooperate with neighbouring authorities, but council leader Julian Daly refused to back down over the failed plan.

This newspaper revealed secret plans to build a new primary school on public open space at St Albans’ Bernards Heath, which was then rushed through by the county council without any public consultation.

As the year came to a close, Dean White, a parent from Prae Wood Primary School, pleaded guilty to stealing £28,000 from the PTA’s accounts, and mums united in protest against the ongoing poor service provided by train operator Thameslink.

As the leading newspaper for the St Albans district, the Herts Advertiser remains at the forefront of what is happening in the local community, and we are already looking ahead to 2017 to ensure we continue bringing our readers the stories that matter in print and online, but for now all that remains is to wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year!