After the pandemic - what does the future look like for St Albans city centre?

St Peter's Street, St Albans city centre.

How will St Albans city centre have to change post-Covid? - Credit: Matt Adams

How will St Albans bounce back in a post-Covid world?

That is the question at the heart of a new survey by leading international finance company KPMG, looking at how COVID-19 will transform England's towns and city centres.

The company's UK chief economist Yael Selfin said: "The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online shopping, with consumers more likely to purchase household goods online than in a store. It has also made working from home acceptable and online gatherings rather than meeting in person the new norm, freeing endless hours of business travel and expense for better use.

"People are unlikely to return to the old ways of doing things. With fewer people coming in to big cities and towns to work and shop, that leaves a big space in areas that were once characterised by bustling shops and offices.

"The high streets of the future will need to become multi-purpose locations, combining retail and hospitality amenities with residential, education, healthcare, cultural, technology, community and more. Office space will need to be transformed for three main purposes: collaboration, creativity and culture, with less space devoted to tasks that could be done remotely."

The report predicts that 19.6 per cent of jobs in St Albans are expected to still be done from home post-Covid, compared to 15.2 in Stevenage, 21.3 in Watford and a massive 27.4 per cent in Hemel Hempstead.

The accelerated shift to online retail has already taken its toll on the high street, with St Albans predicted to lose 28 per cent of retail (1,680 jobs), compared to 31 per cent in Hemel and Stevenage (1,401 and 1,393 jobs respectively), and 32 per cent in Watford (2,431).

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The shift away from travelling for work and shopping puts pressure on town and city centres to find alternative attractions to fill vacant space once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

In conclusion the report combined the impact of home working and loss of retail outlets with the strength of current cultural assets, to calculate an index of vulnerability for towns and cities in England.

Ranking the aforementioned locations in Herts from least to most affected by the pandemic, the scores were Stevenage (-0.23), St Albans (-0.37), Watford (-0.81) and Hemel (-1.80), all hit relatively hard by the lack of commuter footfall and retail offering.

This compares to the likes of Liverpool (0.97), Birmingham (0.88), York (0.64) and Oxford (0.57), which all benefit from a strong cultural offering that partially compensates for the loss in commuter footfall and high street retail.

Cllr Mandy McNeil, portfolio holder for business, tourism and culture on St Albans district council (SADC), responded to the report: "Our high street and local independents really have a chance to survive and thrive with the changing trend, despite online competition. 

"Couple that with our city’s incredible heritage and cultural offering, with more people working from St Albans, the buzz and vibrancy from our charter market and the BID additional events, activities and regional/national promotions we have a premier offering that will bring back footfall.

"COVID has refocused us all on what’s important, including the foundation of our local economy, our small/medium businesses. The BID/SADC City Centre Vision conferences held in 2020 were the catalyst for the proposed St Albans Neighbourhood Forum, a resident and busines- led initiative to develop a Neighbourhood Plan for our city centre. We have been looking at opportunities to develop creative work places since we came into the administration in 2019.

"We just need to keep our businesses going, so please shop locally online and click and collect!"

Cllr Mary Maynard, leader of the Conservative opposition on SADC, said: "Conservative councillors are concerned about the future of the St Albans retail and hospitality sectors. The recent KPMG report shows that St Albans is likely to be one of the worst impacted city centres of the country following Covid.

"The council needs to invest more to help local retail, pubs and restaurants, not destroy a winning formula."