St Albans road closures decision: Everything you need to know
- Credit: Archant / St Albans Council
St Albans councillors must decide this week whether they want the city centre’s roads reopened or kept closed.
Whilst the final decision will be made by a board set up by County Hall, the county council’s roads boss has said the board will only keep the roads closed if St Albans District Council asks it to.
The district council’s Public Realm Committee will meet in public on Wednesday, November 24, to agree a position.
The issue has divided opinion amongst councillors, traders and residents.
Topics councillors must consider on Wednesday include displaced traffic, air pollution, delays to ambulances and the impact on city centre businesses.
Here is a round-up of all the key issues which have arisen so far.
Why are the roads closed?
The roads were closed by County Hall last year to enable residents to socially distance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
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But local councillors have now asked County Hall to keep them closed, to facilitate markets and al fresco dining.
County Hall’s roads chief Phil Bibby told the Herts Ad that County Hall was only considering keeping the roads closed because of that request from local councillors.
“We will not actually consider the proposals unless the district council’s Public Realm Committee has given consent,” he said.
What is the new proposal?
A report by Lib Dem councillor Anthony Rowlands, lead member for public realm, and Tony Marmo, lead officer for commercial and development, says that a County Hall “project board” has come up with a planned a three-phase trial to take place over the next 18 months.
Under all three phases, George Street, Market Place, Spencer Street and Upper Dagnall Street would remain closed to traffic at all times - but different schemes would be trialled in High Street.
In Phase One, High Street would remain closed to traffic at all times.
In Phase Two, it would only be closed to traffic on Saturdays and Sundays.
In Phase Three, it would be made one-way, eastbound only, in the week, and would close on Saturdays and Sundays.
Council meetings have heard repeated gripes about the city centre closures causing congestion elsewhere.
District and county councillor Helen Campbell (Lib Dem) told a meeting in September that residents in the north of St Albans were being “very, very badly affected” by displaced traffic.
Cameron Lavin, from the Whitecroft and Meadowcroft Residents’ Association, said the closure of High Street was “mad”.
“There are only two routes east-west in St Albans and when you shut one, all the traffic goes down the other,” he complained.
Independent councillor Roma Mills said she had received complaints from residents around Folly Lane.
“I know that those people are really suffering,” she said.
Council leader Chris White said he knew Carlisle Avenue, Waverly Road and areas of Clarence ward were also being blighted.
A natural consequence of increased traffic was air pollution, said Cllr Campbell, saying that was a particular concern for her affected residents.
This week’s report by Cllr Rowlands and Mr Marmo concurred: “Whilst it is likely that closing areas of the road will result in an improvement in air quality to the immediate residents and businesses, it is likely that there may well be an increase in pollution in other areas where the traffic is forced to re-route.”
The report said that would have to be monitored.
But, said Conservative leader Mary Maynard: “The problem with that is, what are you measuring against? The roads are already closed.
“The only way to get a proper comparison is to have a period where all the roads are fully reopened, find out what the pollution levels are in the key areas, then close the roads and see whose pollution goes up and down. Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to compare the results to.”
Cllr Maynard said the same applied to measuring traffic impacts.
Another consequence of increased traffic is delays for emergency services, councillors have said.
An August meeting heard that there had been repeated examples of ambulances being delayed.
One paramedic declared the closures “a nightmare”.
Councillors heard in August how one crew was forced to abandon an ambulance and carry equipment into the city centre, whilst another was delayed in helping a child in anaphylactic shock.
In September, a county council officer confirmed to councillors that the ambulance service had raised concerns about congestion linked to the city centre road closures.
The ambulance service did not respond to the Herts Ad’s press enquiry about the closures, but police and the fire service said they had not yet experienced any delays.
Was the public consultation reliable?
An online consultation found just over half of residents supported the closures.
But concerns were raised about the validity of the results in September by IT expert John Singleton, founder of Hertscom.
He said the survey required no proper verification of identity before it was completed.
“You could fill it in and submit it, as far as I could see, as many times as you liked,” he said, concluding that the consultation had been “massively open to fraud”.
Another resident, Jim Golding, raised similar concerns after noticing that whilst roughly 2,500 people had supposedly responded to the consultation, only around 800 had left comments.
The majority of the comments were from people who opposed to or undecided about the closures, putting them at odds with the survey’s overall findings.
“This could be an indicator of people voting more than once,” he said.
County Hall did not answer concerns about the online survey but said it was “engaging with the community to gauge how much support there is” for the closures.
Do businesses support the closures?
Businesses say there was never a formal consultation by either St Albans Council or County Hall with traders in the affected streets.
The Business Improvement District (BID) has told councillors that it surveyed businesses and found most supported continuing closures.
But the Herts Ad has heard from businesses who claim their trade is being badly affected.
Masters in Light closed in August, specifically blaming the closures for a 25 per cent drop in sales.
Mike Skinner, who had run the business for 15 years, said they had blocked deliveries and customers.
“I have spoken to other small independents who have congratulated me on 'escaping', and who have much the same problems,” he said.
"It's a great shame that we have councils who basically are not willing to listen to those who have tried to keep the High Street going by serving the local community as a small independent.”
This month, Deryane Tadd, who runs The Dressing Room in High Street, raised similar concerns, saying the closures were hampering her substantial online business by blocking couriers’ access.
“Herts County Council are putting obstacles in our way for us to be able to run our businesses effectively, all for some hare-brained scheme of closing this road - and all with no consultation,” she said.
When is the decision being made?
The St Albans District Council Public Realm Committee will discuss the proposal on Wednesday night.
The meeting will be held in the council chamber, St Peter’s Street, at 7pm, and can be viewed by attending in person or watching online.
The committee must agree a position on the closures and then refer it to the county council’s project board.
The project board will only consider keeping the roads closed if St Albans District Council has asked it to.
The project board is made up of several St Albans Lib Dem councillors, County Hall’s Tory roads chairman Phil Bibby, a representative of the St Albans BID, and civil servants from the county council.
Unless they unanimously agree on a closure scheme, the roads will be reopened, Cllr Bibby told the Herts Ad.
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