Continental-style mini-markets, retailers able to trade outside their shop front and streets lined with open-air cafes and restaurants are envisaged under a scheme to help lift St Albans out of lockdown.
“The aim is to help support businesses forced to close under lockdown by working with them to develop social distancing measures and a strategy for reopening that makes visitors feel safe and confident to shop around town and in our other vibrant high streets, including Hatfield Road,” says Mandy McNeil, portfolio holder for business, tourism and culture on St Albans District Council (SADC).
Mandy is also co-chair of the St Albans Business Improvement District, known as ‘the BID’, a not-for-profit body funded by city centre businesses.
The scheme, called Inside Out St Albans, was proposed jointly to SADC and Herts County Council by the BID, together with other business and community groups hoping to make use of road closures – in Market Place, High Street and George Street – implemented by the county council as part of central government’s response to Covid-19.
It looks to create safe spaces for shoppers and other pedestrians and, eventually, an outdoor dining area – Borough Market-style.
Community hubs at local pubs
“The first stage of Inside Out St Albans was the setting up of ‘community hubs’ at local pubs, including the Portland Arms, the Great Northern, the White Horse in London Colney, the Mermaid and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks,” explains Mandy.
“The next phase will get going later in June and July when markets and shops can reopen.”
Due to social distancing requirements, the St Albans Charter Market is likely to continue operating in a different way, Mandy points out. As a result, the BID is working with the district council to find innovative approaches to support market traders with alternative days and ways of trading.
Plans for retailers set up outside
And from 15 June, when non-essential shops can open for the first time since lockdown began, plans are being drawn up so retailers who have limited space inside will be able to set up outside their shop front, should they wish.
The plans are designed to:
- Enable shop keepers to serve customers both inside and out
- Manage queues within social distancing guidelines, and
- Give those residents who feel safer in the open-air the opportunity to shop.
And as soon as government guidance permits cafés, restaurants and pubs to open, it’s hoped that St Albans streets will be lined with tables and chairs, socially distanced, taking into consideration the mobility needs of our disabled community, with pre-ordering done via ‘Q’ codes and an app, so that residents will be able to request food and drinks from their favourite outlet, delivered to their table.
“It’s all about shopping and dining outdoors, continental market-style, and working to help rebuild consumer confidence,” says Mandy, who is a Lib Dem councillor on the district council.
Businesses need to see a plan
“It was my job as business portfolio holder on the council to ask businesses what they needed to survive. For a majority of our independent businesses, the answer was that in order for them to reopen and start to take people off furlough, they have to see that there’s a plan where they can start building revenues back up. Trading inside with only 20% capacity because of social distancing is simply not viable.
“They need a model that will allow them to move from online to outside to inside – and back again, in case of a second wave of Covid-19 and another lockdown.
“Council officers have been working almost 24/7 to come up with ways to support our businesses, but central government support will also be needed so that hospitality businesses can open sooner, safely, outside.
Pubs, restaurants and cafés to open sooner
“Our independent businesses are grafters – they’ll do what they have to in order to survive with a modicum of support from all levels of government.”
Mandy is now looking to central government to relax the guidelines, including planning and licensing, to allow pubs, restaurants and cafés to open sooner, outside, to generate revenues over the summer.
Whether it’s semi-permanent tenting of garden bars, or pub/restaurant car parks, or putting tables and chairs out front, central government planning regs will need to be relaxed to allow our hospitality and retail businesses to survive, she says.
“With Inside Out St Albans, combined with a investment from the BID in marketing and promotion locally and nationally, and with support from central government, district council, county council and our fantastic community who’ve been doing a tremendous job supporting our local businesses during this time, we might be able to give some of our hard-hit retail and hospitality businesses a fighting chance.”
Chris White, Liberal Democrat leader of St Albans District Council, commented:
“We’re told by central government that non-essential shops will reopen on 15 June, but the exact way this will work nationally and locally is still unclear and we are awaiting the guidance. But with Inside Out St Albans, we have a plan that’s ready to go.
“Meanwhile the county council has pressed ahead with radical measures to shut roads and close off parking bays, and we hope this will make it easier for the reopening shops to trade.
“There was no consultation on these measures because they were emergency steps brought in by central government on 23 May, with guidance asking authorities to move swiftly to implement them before shops began to open.
“While this has caused considerable issues, the county council has shown it does respond to feedback and so it’s important that people let their local councillors know if they’re experiencing untenable problems as a result of any of these changes.”