© 2017 The Harpenden Society
‘Our Vision for Harpenden’ was the theme of the Harpenden Society’s April meeting, following its routine AGM proceedings. Chairman Chris Marsden said that, despite recent distractions, notably those related to St Albans District Council’s Strategic Local Plan, the Society was looking forward optimistically in its role as a non-party political ‘ginger group’, building on its achievements over the past year. Those included its part in helping establish the Volunteer for Harpenden (VfH) grouping of local, essentially philanthropic organisations, and crucially setting up the valuable VfH website.
Society members should be reminded, said the chairman, that there were numerous positive developments in the pipeline for Harpenden, promising visual and practical enhancements for the town. Plans were now set fair for the bold redevelopment – after some 15 years of dereliction – of the former James Marshall House site and the adjacent Seniors Club, bordering Rothamsted Park to the rear of the Town Hall.
Though the Harpenden Society welcomed the final go-ahead from the planning authorities for what is now entitled the Park House development, there was a need for a holistic approach, involving a review of the nearby leisure and sports facilities in Rothamsted Park, to ensure that the new Park House buildings and immediate surroundings blended harmoniously into the area. That would, ideally, include moving the presently rather distant children’s play area closer to the sports centre.
As a further element in the Society’s ‘Vision for Harpenden’, Chris Marsden also looked forward to the redevelopment of the Harpenden Memorial Hospital ‘Red House’ site as a modern Health & Wellbeing Centre.
Admittedly a more distant, though exciting, prospect was the potential redevelopment of Harpenden Public Halls which, as they stood, were regarded by the people of the town rather like Marmite – loved and hated in roughly equal measure. There was the exciting possibility of creating a proper theatre on the site, along with an arts hub and a museum able to do justice to the extensive archives and vigorous ongoing work of the Local History Society.
Funding for such a project was a key question however. It was therefore likely that such a theatre and arts facility would have to form part of a larger development which would include some housing, most obviously apartments above the communal areas, for private sale or rent.
Julian Daly, planning portfolio holder and leader of St Albans District Council (SADC), accepted the Harpenden Society’s invitation to provide his own perspective on the Vision for Harpenden theme at the April meeting.
He began by acknowledging the town’s parking problems which, he said, had certainly worsened in the last year. A second deck on the east station car park had been considered, though planning considerations and the need for co-operation with Network Rail presented complications which had yet to be overcome. Likewise the matter of funding; the likely cost had been estimated at between £10,000 and £14,000 per car space.
As to the mooted upgrading of the sports centre, swimming pool and indeed the Public Halls, Cllr Daly emphasised the requirement, at a time of ongoing stringency in public finances, for such developments to be ‘cost neutral’ ie. largely self-funding.
He cited the example of the successful and completed redevelopment of the Westminster Lodge sports complex on the Verulam Park site in St Albans. Better use needed to be made of the existing space at Harpenden swimming pool. A larger main pool was envisaged plus a second ‘flexible use’ pool.
On the Public Halls redevelopment issue, Cllr Daly said he envisaged a 500-seat theatre to replace the current 400-seat Eric Morecambe hall. It could form part of a multi-function facility incorporating a sports hall, arts hub and a Harpenden museum. A question yet to be addressed however, and one which SADC planners would regard as vital, was the issue of available car parking on or near the new facility.
An early cost estimate was around £17 million, which was a formidable sum, set against the annual £2 million or so coming from Harpenden’s council tax payers. It was nevertheless hoped that support funding could be obtained by way of grants from national bodies such as the Arts Council and Sport England. The proposals, however tentative and ambitious, were, he insisted credible and he cited the Westminster Lodge and City Museum in St Albans as recent examples of what was possible.
Cllr Daly said he was ‘reasonably confident’ that his vision and that of The Harpenden Society could be realised, though he cautioned that redevelopment schemes should be kept as simple as practicality would allow. ‘Complications inevitably lead to things going wrong’, he added.