Case study: St Albans
Control: Lib Dems
Numbers: Lib Dems 30, Conservatives 23, Independents 2, Labour 2, Green Party 1.
Change since last local elections: Lib Dems +5, Labour -3, Conservatives -1, Independents -1.
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: St Albans is a cathedral city in Hertfordshire. During the Roman occupation, it was known as Verulamium, the second-largest settlement after Londinium. However, there were some boundary changes and redevelopment schemes after 60 AD when the original settlement was destroyed by Boadicea and her Iceni tribe. At a meeting in St Albans on August 4th 1213, the Magna Carta was drafted. St Albans City and District Council was formed in 1974. Until the 1990s it was mostly under Conservative control. Then the Lib Dems tended to have the upper hand. Though from 2015 to 2019 it was back with a Conservative overall majority. In 2019 it went to “no overall control”. Then in May, the gains made by the Lib Dems gave them an overall majority.
At the last General Election, the Lib Dems gained the St Albans constituency. Former MPs include – Peter Lilley, who in 1992 had a majority of over 16,000. (Before Lilley the seat was held by Sir Victor Goodhew for the Conservatives, usually with comfortable majorities in successive elections.) Labour gained the seat in 1997 and held on until 2005 when Anne Main won it back for the Conservatives. But it should be noted that in 1997 a new constituency was created, Hitchin and Harpenden, which included several St Albans wards. The seat was held by Lilley until he stood down in 2017. Since then the Conservative MP has been Bim Afolami. But proposed boundary changes mean it will cease to exist.
The Lib Dems have never won the St Albans Parliamentary seat before 2019 – perhaps surprisingly given their better fortunes in the council elections, However, Jacob Bell, the Whig candidate, did defeat a Conservative in a by-election in 1850. The borough was then disenfranchised after a Royal Commission found proof of extensive bribery which is how it became part of Hertfordshire.
Results: Residents of St Albans voted Remain in the EU referendum by almost two to one. As so often, that vote is an important starting point in understanding what has happened since in political developments. Linked to that has been the Lib Dems managing to establish themselves as the clear alternative to the Conservatives here. Hitherto, opposition to the Conservatives was more evenly divided between Labour and the Lib Dems.
Since the M25 was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, house prices in St Albans have risen even more sharply than elsewhere. There is something of a divide between the city centre and the suburbs. Younger public sector professionals live in the centre – often commuting into London. They are well paid – but usually not sufficiently well paid to be able to buy. The Lib Dems have championed the al fresco dining cohort with pedestrianisation schemes. The Conservatives have complained about traffic being dispersed elsewhere and raised the plight of small businesses and white van man.
When it comes to development there is less of a divide. They are all Nimbys. In any case, almost all of St Albans comes under the Green Belt. The Council’s website includes the proud boast:
“The current adopted Local Plan is The District Local Plan Review 1994.”
Not very “current”, is it? 1994 was the year the National Lottery was launched and Four Weddings and a Funeral was the hot new release in the cinema.
Residents may feel that the failure to adopt anything more recent is a sign of anti-development cred. The Green Belt constraints would apply anyway but they do allow development under some circumstances – “infill”, brownfield sites, developments that include “affordable” housing. Not having a Local Plan makes it easier for developers to push it through – if necessary on appeal. But these intricacies are likely to be lost on the electorate.
What of future Conservative prospects? There is a significant Bangladeshi community in St Albans which Labour has traditionally taken for granted. Might that change? As Brexit becomes a settled reality perhaps the anger over that issue may subside and an aspirational, tax-cutting agenda might start to woo liberal urbanite voters (assuming the Conservatives were to adopt such an agenda at some stage).
But housing is probably the key. Supposing the Green Belt rules were changed to give presumption to allow development on unattractive, derelict and contaminated land if environmental gains were offered? That with a hundred acres of wasteland, a developer was allowed to build (traditional) housing on half of it while providing a park on the other half?
Much of St Albans is beautiful – including the Cathedral, of course. But not all of it is. Is St Albans Magistrates Court beautiful? It is not. Suppose it is was knocked down and replaced with neo-classical housing. Then an elegant new Court built on some unloved piece of scuzzy wasteland. Would there really be a conservationist backlash? Surely the City’s pride would be enhanced. Would not the committee of the St Albans Civic Society dance a jig in celebration? Yet under my (admittedly fallible) understanding of the National Planning Policy Framework such an outcome would be illegal, due to Green Belt restrictions.
Does anyone lament the demise of the BHS building in St Peter’s Street? They do not. It is ugly development that is the source of grievance. We should have the flexibility to reverse some of the mistakes of earlier decades.
I understand the most enlightened liberalisation of planning rules will prompt cynicism. But in its present form, the Green Belt is an electoral noose for the Conservatives in places like St Albans. It could be changed in such a way that both conservationists and Generation Rent would applaud.