St Anywhere or St Albans? – a passionate speech to HRH The Prince of Wales

This is Vanessa Gregory’s speech given at the reception held at St James’s Palace State apartments on Tuesday 1 May 2012: 

Ladies and Gentleman  

My name is Vanessa Gregory; I am proud to be a resident of St Albans. In fact I am at least a 5th generation Albanian.

St Albans is about 20 miles north of London, via Watling Street, the Roman equivalent of the M1, although settlements here predate the Romans. Our built environment reflects for centuries that we were the first overnight coaching stop on route from London.  We are also a place of pilgrimage. Our wonderful Cathedral (known locally as The Abbey) stands over the place where Britain's first Christian martyr Alban, was buried.

I recall even as a child of seven, a sense of wonder and privilege, that from my street I could face in one direction to the green fields of Gorhambury, and yet have the city centre within five minutes walk – a distinction between town and country that still exists today.  

Equally I have a passion for the work of The Prince’s Foundation.  25 years ago, I watched His Royal Highness’ pioneering TV documentary, “A Vision of Britain”.  I recall how his fervent well articulated pleas chimed with something deep within me.  St Albans character had been gradually chipped away, and His Royal Highness was certainly not alone in believing in the importance of providing architecture that had resonance with local people. 

Just over 3 years ago I met and listened to James Hulme from The Foundation at an Historic Towns Forum conference.  He explained how The Prince of Wales' vision had evolved into The Prince’s Foundation. Their work, he explained, reconciled the professional practice in planning and development, with the often seemingly conflicting views held dear by local people. We tend to approach planning, with views that stem from the heart and local knowledge and dare I say it, common sense, rather than just stark rationality.  

I could hardly wait for the lunch break when I waylaid him, and left him in no doubt that I intended to find a way, somehow, for The Foundation to work with the community in St Albans, before our city centre was further damaged.

I must pay tribute to James, as he has consistently encouraged and helped me in this ambition.

My deep concerns were that parts of our Civic Centre redeveloped in the 1960s, when modern architecture of the day was most dominant, were ready to be torn down yet again.

Planning applications were starting to come forward and were met by alarm and frustration from residents.  I have to confess, I have literally cried in our council chamber, when applications have been given approval, which many of us knew were wrong for our city. Very few seemed to have any architectural merit.  We appeared set to make the same mistakes again.  Many proposals could have been, as one resident said, for St Anywhere not St Albans! 

Therefore I was absolutely overjoyed and relieved when recently I and the whole community in St Albans worked with The Foundation, on our collaborative initiative called, ‘Look! St Albans, Inspired by the past – picture your future’.

Through our civic society we formed a city centre steering group, of which I am proud and honoured to be a part. Our one aim was to facilitate the Look St Albans initiative and encourage all the community in taking part in our venture.  We felt design codes would offer a clear and yet flexible tool to enable developments to take place.  Our aim was not to stop development, but to set the bar that was acceptable to the whole community, and would prove durable!

We certainly were not passive in this process. We promoted, advertised and funded the hosting of the community’s events. Our local newspaper The Herts Advertiser provided us with immense support, carrying a special feature each week on our progress.

We asked everyone to take photos of aspects of our city that inspired them and they found appealing. To enable anyone to join in we set up our web presence on the photo sharing website Flickr. 

The work was intense; the team from The Foundation were utterly inspiring with their hard work and encouragement.  It was a totally exhilarating experience.  For once we actually felt we could make a difference, right from the start.

Helpfully I feel the council's Chief Executive recently said of our Look St Albans project; “This is exactly the sort of community initiative that the council’s members and I want to see…. We look forward to the project’s recommendations and working closely with the steering group to make them a reality.” 

The report co-authored by The Foundation and the community will be presented this month.  With the community spirit that has so far been engendered, there is a very strong desire to carry on our work to complete the design codes.

I hope I have given you a flavour of why I am so immensely proud to have been a part of this project.  My joy has been to see people who were hesitant to take part, blossom.  New friendships have been made, contacts established and working relationships cemented.

However most of all my beloved St Albans now stands a chance of being shaped by those who care most, us, the community.

We in St Albans are very grateful that our initiative has been partially funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government ‘Communities and Neighbourhoods in Planning’ programme.

My fervent hope is that people like me, in other communities, who care just as passionately as I do are given the opportunity to work with The Foundation, so they too can be inspired by their past and picture their future!

Thank you

Find out more about the Look! St Albans community intiative